News & Politics

Reactionary 'Education Refomers' Fenty and Rhee Support Scott Walker's Attack on Teachers

Why is it suddenly okay to blame a group of people doing such important work? We can partially blame media darlings who pointed fingers at unions instead of at poverty.

Polls have shown that most of the country is siding with the besieged workers in Wisconsin, many of them teachers, whose livelihoods and fundamental right to bargain have been under attack--and ultimately decimated--by authoritarian, overreaching governor Scott Walker.

Still, the move to demonize teachers for “budget problems" continues in state after state, with similar bills that would restrict bargaining being passed right and left. This disturbing trend demonstrates that Walker and other lawmakers feel emboldened to attack teachers, one of the last truly middle-class (not wealthy) professions in this country -- and a profession not coincidentally dominated by women, and in many areas women of color.

Why is it suddenly okay to blame a group of people doing such important work? Well, part of the problem is the bipartisan embrace of “education reformers” like Michelle Rhee and the mayor who championed her, Adrian Fenty (who was defeated after just one term by an unsatisfied constituency). Going further than the typically anti-union "reform" types among their peers, these two have actually come out and endorsed Governor Walker's actions.

Earlier this week, Fenty made the following statement: “He’s right on the substance, I think. I tend to agree with him on the need for collective bargaining reform. But he’s also right on the politics.” Rhee has repeatedly come out in support of Walker, saying she thinks, “the move to try to limit what they bargain over is an important one.”

Rhee and Fenty were praised by Democrats, including President Obama. But as Rhee heads to Florida to help right-wing Rick Scott bust some teachers' unions there, let’s hope the scales are lifting from the public's eyes. When even NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose education choices have hardly been orthodox or progressive, thinks Walker is going too far on collective bargaining, you know that Rhee's and Fenty’s views are extreme.

In a way, this is a good thing for those of us who want to push back on the “education reform” mantra that bad teachers are the source of all the ills plaguing our school system. It’s a fallacy to pretend that the people who sign up for grueling work and mediocre pay to do the hard work of actually trying to help kids learn are the ones holding back progress. It’s equally absurd to blame teachers’ pensions for budget cuts when we could be taxing millionaires just a tad to make up for any gaps.

Blogger E.D. Klain been on top of this issue from day one, and it’s worth reading all of his coverage. Here is the key paragraph explaining why “moderate” endorsement of people like Rhee and Fenty has opened the door for authoritarians like Walker:

Democrats, the media, and these large foundations have all played a role in the fight against teachers’ unions and the place of traditional public school in society. This has played nicely into the hands of Republicans like Scott Walker and Chris Christie and other GOP politicians at the state and national level who have long gunned for teachers’ unions and for a breakup of the public school "monopoly." Indeed, the demonization of teachers plays a central part in the modern school-reform movement.

I’ve always found this demonization of teachers to be bizarre, a way of passing off responsibility for the continuation of an impoverished, disadvantaged underclass to some of the last remnants of the actual middle-class. Why do these ideas gain traction? The fabled "silver bullet" of firing bad teachers makes it seem so easy to fix our massive problem: there's no sacrifice, no money involved. It's like blaming the kids' problems on the babysitter when it's the parents (to extend the metaphor, society at large) that are its root.

Teachers may have good benefits and decent salaries compared to workers in, say, the service industry, but that doesn't mean it's a cinch to make ends meet. They also have to submit to a lot of difficult conditions. They go home each night to a pile of grading and planning. They frequently have to pay out of pocket for school supplies for their students. They are often forced to change their teaching styles based on the educational fad of the day. They spend extra hours acting as tutors, counselors, mentors and coaches.

Why blame these hard-working people, rather than the structural inequality of our class system? A great teacher can’t feed a hungry kid. She can’t change the home life of a neglected kid. She can’t shield a kid from violence in the neighborhood. She can’t snap her fingers and enable a well-meaning parent without the requisite skills to suddenly be able to sit down and muscle through trigonometry homework with their child. And she can’t end the racism and classism that exacerbates and contributes to many of these conditions. 

Just because a good education can sometimes enable people to move into the middle-class doesn’t mean it should be the only means of lifting people out of poverty. As Kevin Drum rightly points out, research shows that one of the biggest indicator of educational success is not teacher quality, but parents' educational attainment: "Children of college graduates score about one standard deviation above the mean by the time they're three, and that never changes. Children of mothers with less than a high school education score about half a standard deviation below the mean by the time they're three, and that never changes either."

This is the result of dozens of factors, which are attributable to circumstances and are not a reflection on a child's "cognitive ability." No school, be it charter or parochial, private or public, can single-handedly break the cycle of stratification.

We need to cure inequality at the root by helping to feed, house, rehabilitate and train those people who suffer the stings of poverty or lack of access to basic services--in addition to strengthening schools with smaller class sizes, early childhood education, more individualized help for troubled students, and curricular innovation. Schools matter, and education reformers are certainly right that educating low-income or otherwise disadvantaged kids should be extremely high on our priority list. But what we don’t need is the knee-jerk blame of teachers for complex, foundational inequality, a wound they are struggling every day to help heal. 

Hopefully the American public, which has rallied behind teachers these past few weeks, will begin to embrace the idea that we should partner with teachers, not shut them out, in our efforts to make things better for American kids.

In the meantime, here's Samantha Bee of the Daily Show mocking the blame-it-on-teacher mentality by taking a fake MTV Cribs-style tour of average teachers' homes, followed by a youtube video made by teachers themselves correcting false assumptions about their profession. 

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at
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