Since the latest mass school shootings (this time in Roseburg, Oregon) I’ve been comparing the coverage and commentary on gun violence to education reform. Which may sound a little weird. But the politics and dynamics of gun control and ed reform are so similar, it’s worth taking a closer look.
In both cases:
For the NRA, the last eight years have been great. The election of the country’s first African-American president galvanized the NRA’s (mostly white) membership who began buying more guns than ever. Under Obama, the percentage of Republicans who now favor gun rights over gun control shot up to 75 percent. As Talking Points Memo blogger Josh Marshall put it, “It seems clear that being pro-gun has now become a key element of Republican self-identification.”
This is a huge win. Because if you can turn an issue into a key part of self-identity, people don’t have to think much about policies, much less facts or research. Their support becomes tribal and automatic.
As a progressive, I’ve long rolled my eyes over the NRA’s hold on Republicans. But my beloved Democratic tribe has a similar dynamic going on with the NEA and AFT, although, here is where things diverge a bit in the NRA vs. NEA & AFT analogy.
Twenty years ago, conservatives mostly led the education reform movement. This was, in part, because Democrats were loathe to speak up, since loyalty to the teachers union has long been a key element of Democratic self-identity. That self-identity is still there–and the NEA & AFT are working fiercely to reinforce this—but it’s breaking down.
The ed reform movement is now increasing led by people who openly identify as progressives and/or Democrats, starting with President Obama, outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, his successor John King, More people of color are leading reform organizations. Furthermore, public polling still shows strong support for charter schools, especially among black and Latino parents who are the fastest growing segment of the Democratic party and public school population.
In response to these trends, the NEA and AFT are trying to rebrand themselves as “social justice” unions and align themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement as a way to bolster their progressive credibility.
The problem with this is that when it comes to actual education policies, the NEA-AFT positions aren’t very progressive–they are mostly an attempt to block change and innovation. And when we pay attention to the NEA & AFT’s political behavior and tactics, they are remarkably similar to the NRA’s. Which should worry progressives. For example:
1) Both the NRA and teachers’ unions use a classic bait and switch to divert blame after bad news. After mass shootings, the NRA now blames mental illness and calls for better mental health services. After the latest round of dismal reading and math scores, the NEA and AFT routinely blame poverty and call for more social services and justice: better jobs, transit, nutrition, health-care.
It all sounds very noble because truly mental health does matters as does poverty. But by immediately pivoting to bigger social issues, both the NRA and the NEA-AFT are saying, “Look over there! Away from us and the policies we actually have the power to change! You people need to go away and work on these other big things over there and leave us alone. ”
The truth is we don’t have to choose between working for better mental health care and gun control or social justice and re-designing schools to actually work for the students in the building. We can and must do both.
2) Both the NRA and teaches’ unions try to block federal and state agencies from collecting or using data that could make them look bad.
The NRA has long blocked federal research into gun injuries and death while trying to limiting access to databases about gun ownership. The teachers’ unions are now trying to roll back federal accountability requirements and block states or districts from using test data to demand any changes in school staffing or design.
Both the unions and the NRA are doing this under the language of states’ rights and local control. Which should be a red flag for progressives.
3) Both represent members who are mostly white and both defend a status quo in which white people have far more freedom and choice even as black people are disproportionately harmed.
At some point, we really need to call NRA’s right-to-bear arms what it is: White Dudes’ Freedom to Carry. Remember the gang of white guys who casually carried their assault rifles into Target and bought Oreos?
Black men don’t try these stunts for a simple reason: they get killed. Last year, Ohio police gunned down John Crawford, who had casually picked an air rifle off the shelf while shopping at Wal-Mart and talking on his cell phone. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by police within seconds for playing with a toy gun at a Cleveland park. Over all, black Americans are twice as likely to die from gun violence than whites. The burden of living in a country awash with guns is twice as deadly for them.
On the school front, at some point, we also need to call the much-lauded traditional neighborhood district school model what it actually is: school choice by mortgage. Since access to good schools mostly depends on where you live, white children are far more likely to attend effective schools than children of color.
Last year in the Vergara vs. California case, a judge ruled that the union’s tenure and seniority rules put ineffective teachers in front of children of color at grossly disproportionate rates. “The evidence is compelling. It shocks the conscience,” wrote the judge in a decision that the teachers’ union denounced as “anti-union” and “anti-teacher.”
And these are just three examples. I could keep going.
Look, I know I keep harping on this. But If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck….if the teachers’ unions behave like fundamentalists; if they do politics like the NRA; if they make the same arguments as police unions; if their policies keep leading to highly racialized outcomes…..well, these are all signs that we are not dealing with a progressive outfit or agenda, despite all their social justice speeches, massive political donations, and claims to be leftist revolutionaries.
When it comes to their actual behavior, the NEA & AFT act very much like other white conservative groups. They’re struggling to preserve a status quo that—like everything else in our 400-year history–was built on the preferential treatment of white people. As I’ve noted before:
In my state of Minnesota, our schools were created by white middle-class people, for white middle-class people and employ mostly white middle-class people. (Ninety-six percent of our state’s teachers are white, even as children of color now make up 28 percent of the enrollment.) In addition, current school rules, policies and contracts are decided by…Lord, this is getting repetitious…. mostly middle-class white people…..
I’m not arguing that public schools were deliberately, consciously set up for the preferential treatment of middle-class white people. But pragmatically speaking, that’s how the system works. This was easier to ignore or justify back in the day when the vast majority of Minneapolis students were white and doing okay. But it’s harder to morally justify when almost 70 percent of our students are now low-income kids of color and systematically failing. I mean, the whole system starts getting this antebellum vibe.
Why should this matter to progressive Democrats? Because we’ve seen what happens when Republicans make the NRA’s gun rights part of their political self-identity—as a nation we now watch helplessly as the cycles of violence go on and on.
So we should be wary of the teachers’ unions attempt to keep co-opting Democrats in a similar fashion. I am amazed at how many white liberal friends of mine, who are not normally prone to conspiracy theories, will instantly and mindlessly repeat slogans about corporate reformers attempting to destroy public education, etc.
When it comes to mass shootings, many of us hold the NRA and Republicans politically responsible for the endless carnage because they refuse to change our laws no matter how many die.
When it comes to schools, it’s the NEA, AFT and most of our elected Democrats who refuse to change our traditional system, even as we lose generation after generation of young minds.
Our elected officials will not change unless we demand it. We need to get our heads straight and hold them accountable
An earlier version of this post first appeared at Citizen EdPosted on