Paige has had hell to pay this week for comparing the largest U.S. teachers' union to a "terrorist organization" during a private White House meeting. The New York Times called the remark "staggeringly stupid." And indeed, it wasn't the smartest thing to say, even if in jest, because it puts the unions on the defensive allowing them to create the sort of self-righteous noise that detracts the public from real education reform.
That said, the remark was right (even if it wasn't politically correct).
The two largest unions, the AFT and NEA, hold public education system hostage. They are fundamentally opposed to any education reform-like vouchers or the No Child Left Behind Act-that seeks to hold public schools accountable for their failures. They attack such reforms because they know that these plans would mean the likely defections of public school personnel to privatized systems and the birth of competing collective bargaining entities. For the teacher's unions, the idea of competition can only mean giving up leverage and money.
Since the job of unions is to accumulate leverage and money, they've fought President Bush and Rod Paige on every meaningful education reform they've proposed. On the grass roots front, the teachers unions have conducted a lengthy campaign to condition the public to think of vouchers as something that would destroy-rather than reform-public education. Vouchers siphon off valuable resources from the public school system and erode the cherished institutions that keep us huddled together as a union, they tell us.
The hyperbole is extreme, even by special interest standards.
In person, though, one finds representatives from the education terrorists to be warm and endearing. Are we experiencing a crisis in education? Oh no, certainly not, they assure with near contagious ease. "We've had some problems in the past," admits Darrell Capwell, a spokesperson with AFT. "Some needs," clarifies Michael Pons, a policy analyst for the NEA.
Just what are these "needs" and "problems," one asks? The response is uniform: Schools getting older, need to reduce class size, entice more people to go into teaching, then make sure we keep qualified instructors.
This is code for: more funds will carry the day. On the topic of vouchers, I am told that they are, well, quite simply a bad idea. Here, the conversation is studded with phrases like, "racial balkanization" and "religious division."
"A voucher system, by definition, lets them set up schools that are religious and amongst different sects, schools that are focused on different racial groups," explains Pons.