The Invisible Profession: The demise of teaching in the public sphere.

(This was a joint post, written with Cato Uticensis, which is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South. He likes barbecue, bourbon, cigars, and labor politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.)

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This message began appearing on signs throughout Tuscaloosa County in the last couple of months. The new name is apparently imbued with a bit of history itself: the city of Tuscaloosa was founded on the fall line of the Black Warrior River in west Alabama in 1819. It would eventually become Alabama’s second state capital in 1826, and the University of Alabama was established in the city in 1831. With Stillman College, a historically Black university, opening its doors in 1875 and Shelton State Community College doing the same in 1950, it made sense that the city would be home to a robust financial institution specifically catered to the city’s grade-school and post-secondary teachers. Thus we have the Tuscaloosa Teachers’ Credit Union, which opened its doors in 1953. 

This specific change does not seem to be altogether that shocking or scandalous. An institution starts as one thing, broadens its focus, and changes its name to reflect this development. Big deal, happens all the time. Look at the Government Employees Insurance Company, for instance. In and of itself, these kinds of developments aren’t catastrophic, but they are a reflection of the ongoing siege against public education and the erasure of educators from public life.

It used to be that teachers and the institutions that supported and sustained them were critical aspects of civil society. Things like teachers’ colleges, credit unions for teachers, insurance pools, unions or professional associations, pension funds, and the schools that the teachers taught in were vital to the good health of the communities they were in. Gradually these things have become subsumed. Dedicated teachers’ colleges were absorbed into larger universities as schools of education or closed. Financial institutions follow a similar story, where they broadened their mission in the way that RiverFall did. And now teachers’ unions, the schools their members teach in, and the pensions that sustain their retirees have begun to fall under threat. 

The lack of visibility that teachers have in contemporary public life makes them all the more vulnerable to attack from those who seek to radically deform America’s public education system. It used to be that the battle lines around education were drawn in a partisan manner: capital-funded Republicans seeking to destroy a politically powerful portion of the public sector against Democrats who counted on teachers’ unions for mobilization and support. But those lines have become blurred to a point of nonexistence.

This has led to the rise of groups like Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and StudentsFirst, who are powerful allies to those of the employing class choosing to dabble in education like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Waltons. With the effects of the Great Recession continuing to wreak havoc on state and local budgets, elected officials have been increasingly willing to turn their constituencies into laboratories for the most radical deconstruction of our education system in generations. One only needs to look towards Mississippi and Alabama as test cases, with active StudentsFirst chapters pushing for reduced regulations on charter schools.

These orgs also use their political clout to attack another bete noir of the education reform lobby, the pensions of retired teachers. Ideological foes to defined benefit pensions, like Chris Christie and Rahm Emanuel, and opportunistic profiteers, like hedge fund raider and former Enron executive John Arnold in Texas, have turned their eyes towards teachers’ pensions as a way to reduce government spending to support further tax cuts on the wealthy or as a way to make an ungodly amount of money off of immiserating those who educate this country’s children and depriving them of security in their old age (it should be noted that Texas teachers do not get Social Security and the only source of consistent income in their retirement is Texas Teachers Retirement System, making Arnold’s proposal to eliminate it doubly evil).

All of this has had the effect of reducing teachers as a whole to simply one more interest group in a political landscape filled to the brim with them and has turned teachers into the butt of jokes. The discussions of “ringfencing” education funding that are common across Europe have no truck here. Instead, the watchwords are “efficiency” and “rightsizing”. Even the powerful and militant Chicago Teachers Union, which is a national leader in movement unionism, was not able to stop an unelected school board from shuttering fifty public schools and opening forty-nine charter schools in their place. If they could not stop it, then what hope does an organization like the Alabama Education Association or the Mississippi Association of Educators have?

It is important to note that this erasure of teachers from public life is not the cause of attacks on teachers and public education as a whole. The opposite is the case: public policy attacking public education is driving the erasure of the teaching profession. The question becomes how to arrest this development and return education and educators to an honored place in public life?

First, despite CTU’s inability to prevent the school closures of last year, they have extracted a high price from the architect of this action, Rahm Emanuel. As we write this, he is in the fight of his political life against a candidate they have endorsed and supported. Their model of bottom-up, community-involved unionism is one that can and should be replicated elsewhere if public education in the United States is to be saved.

Second, we need to build political institutions (beyond teachers’ unions) that will act as a stern guard against calumny by Democrats with regards to public education. Growing groups like the Democratic Socialists of America would serve as a strong counterweight against DFER and StudentsFirst. Narrow-interest nonprofits like the Network for Public Education might do good work, but they are a reactive measure not a proactive one.

Only by creating a hostile climate to privatization and Third Way triangulation within the Democrats can public education be not just preserved as it is but returned to its place of prominence in our civil society.