A problem as big and many-faceted as the problem of the public schools couldn't possibly be the fault just of teachers -- or even of teacher unions. The National Education, even so, makes clear why teachers have lost so much of the devotion and respect they used to command from Americans. Namely, because unions such as the NEA put their politics over the principles one might hope they hold.
Out of Chicago, where the NEA just rose from its annual convention, comes notification -- I didn't say news -- that the country's biggest teacher union is endorsing for president -- come on, guess! -- Barack Obama. As was its right: free speech and all that. Figuring all Republican presidential candidates incapable of saying anything remotely interesting to a teachers union, the NEA, 3.2 million members strong, went ahead and endorsed.
The pro-Obama margin, 72 percent, wasn't as large as the 80 percent Obama racked up three year ago. Anyway, it reminds onlookers that a major portion of the country's education leadership remains devoted to the noble ideals of more money from taxpayers and less competition from newer, fresher methods of doing things.
To maintain these noble ideals, the NEA is saying in effect, we need a specific kind of politician, the kind likeliest to give us more money. The union's president, Dennis Van Roekel, summed up thus: "The last two years of state legislatures and the midterm elections were eye-openers, demonstrating what can happen when education legislation and decisions are left in the hand of politicians who do not support public schools." Yeah, exactly -- such politicians as the voters freely elect could decide the present condition of the public schools indicates the urgent need for reproaches and remedies.
Saying baldly that unspecified "politicians" don't support public schools is exquisitely silly: like saying an untouched serving of Mom's homemade apple pie means someone wants the old bat to give up baking and start shopping Wal-Mart. If that's the brand of logic they're teaching in public schools, it's no wonder the cry goes up -- as it does -- for more accountability to taxpayers and, not least, students.
The premise that underlies the public school monopoly is, look, give us the tax money (whether you want to or not), and we, the teachers and principals, will turn your little savages into Shakespeare-quoting masters and mistresses of differential calculus and, if you really want it, Mandarin Chinese. It's a trade-off in other words. Taxpayers cough up; teachers deliver. Happens all the time in the free marketplace.
Except that marketplace principles don't obtain in that which the NEA is pleased to call "public education." The "public" part means we talk here about a government service. The "government" part means the employees of this service work to elect a set of politicians who generally see things their way, rarely resisting a call to spend more money, shorten the working day, and, most urgent of all, stifle the competition.
We're back to where we came in: the NEA's early endorsement of Obama to allow more time for campaigning, fundraising and the like. Republican ideas for making the schools a little better -- poof and piffle! The teachers know how those ideas are sure to turn out: advantaging taxpayers over teachers. Thus the possibility of improving evaluation processes for classroom teachers gives way, as does the prospect of getting more return on money that goes for salaries, programs and administrative cost.
As for the idea of reforming the public school concept from top to bottom -- with vouchers and charter schools, say -- that's where a good union needs powerful friends in high places, who can say that we're not going there, now or ever.
As for 2012, we'll just see. At this critical stage, count on the president to know who is helping him and likewise who isn't. What unions want from Democrats -- rights, privileges and protection from the rigors of the marketplace they generally get. And they keep right on getting, provided they elect enough Democrats.