The best and worst in education and labor: 2012

Chicago teachers on strike (Sitthixay Ditthavong / AP)

Here Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research organization, writes about education and labor during 2012. This appeared on the foundation’s blog.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

The biggest news for education and labor watchers in 2012 was, of course, the reelection of a president far more supportive of investing in students and worker rights than his opponent.  But 2012 also saw important setbacks for public school advocates in Louisiana and Indiana and for workers and labor unions in Wisconsin and Michigan.

On the plus side of the ledger, 2012 witnessed the revival of tough and innovative teacher union leadership in Chicago and Washington; the emergence of center-right interest in school integration; improved prospects for class-based affirmative action at selective colleges and universities; and the beginnings of an innovative private sector union movement that intelligently re-frames organizing as a civil right.

The Worst

* The Revival of Private School Vouchers

Students stuck in bad schools deserve greater choice within the public school system, but private school vouchers are a bad idea that research shows divert public funds, entangle the state in religious institutions, can further segregate students, and have shown mediocre results. It was disappointing, therefore, that in 2012, Indiana’s voucher program was sustained by a lower court and greatly expanded its reach as the number of students participating doubled. And in 2012, for the first time, more than 5,000 Louisiana students began going to private religious schools on the public dime. The Indiana and Louisiana programs are much more radical than targeted voucher programs for low-income students; Indiana and Louisiana’s schemes are open to middle-class families, thereby deepening the dangers of economic and racial segregation.  (Thankfully, in late 2012, a state court struck down the Louisiana program, but the effect of the decision is stayed until the case is heard on appeal.)

* Setbacks for Labor Unions in the Midwest

This past year also saw major defeats for organized labor and workers in Wisconsin and Michigan. First came failure in June to recall Governor Scott Walker, who famously stripped public sector workers of most of their collective bargaining rights in 2011. Far worse was the right-wing effort in December to establish in Michigan—home of the United Auto Workers and industrial unionism—a so-called “right to work” law. The legislation, which allows workers to benefit from collective bargaining agreements but withhold dues or agency fees, is a political and economic power grab which weakens a critical constituency of the Democratic Party as well as average workers. At a time of growing economic inequality, such legislation increases the power of businesses, and gives workers, as President Obama suggested, “the right to work for less money.”

The Best

Despite bad news in Louisiana, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the past year brought good education and labor news in a number of areas.

* The Revival of Tough and Innovative Teachers Unions

After years of being denigrated and demeaned—including by some Democrats—teachers in Chicago decided in September to stand up to the bullying by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, going out on strike in the nation’s third largest school district as Emanuel was slated to begin fundraising for President Obama’s reelection campaign. This move recalled the shrewd militancy of the great teacher union leader Albert Shanker, who participated in a strategic teachers strike in New York City before the 1960 presidential election. But 2012 also saw from union leaders the other side of Shanker’s legacy—his willingness to champion controversial education reforms that enhance the teaching profession. In December, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, a teacher and a lawyer, proposed that teachers, like attorneys, should pass a tough bar exam. “This is about raising the standards of our profession and making sure that kids get teachers who are prepared,” she declared.

* New Interest from Education Reformers in Socioeconomic School Integration

Many right-leaning education reformers have long suggested that poverty and segregation are just “excuses” for poor education performance and have seen efforts to integrate student populations as a distraction, but 2012 saw some signs of change in that attitude. In May, the National Alliance for Charter Schools issued a report noting that in addition to providing education in a high poverty setting, a number of charter schools—from the Denver School of Science and Technology to High Tech High in San Diego—were consciously seeking to integrate by socioeconomic status. (The report came out about the same time as Century’s own analysis, published with the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, of the growing trend in a report entitled, “Diverse Charter Schools.”) Education blogger Alexander Russo reports in Education Next  that consciously diverse charters are receiving the backing of the Obama administration and that foundations have “started to take diverse charters seriously, too.” 

In regular public schools, center and center-right education reformers are beginning to embrace diversity as a reform strategy as well. In May, I participated in a “room for debate” dialogue in the New York Times on school integration and was pleased to see the very face of the school reform movement—former Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee—endorse socioeconomic school integration. In November, Michael Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute, published a  new book that recounts the educational benefits of economic school integration. And in December, current D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson tweeted, “Could we create a series of voluntarily diverse schools in DCPS?”

* Interest from the U.S. Supreme Court in Class-Based Affirmative Action

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court  heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a case challenging the use of racial preferences in university admissions. Justice Samuel Alito of all people—not known as a tribune of poor on most matters—nevertheless raised a very important criticism. UT Austin argued that it needed to use race in admissions because its race-neutral program to admit students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, tended to admit students who were likely “to be the first in their families to attend college.” Texas suggested that racial preferences were needed to admit students such as “the African American or Hispanic child of successful professionals in Dallas” who would defy stereotypes. Alito was rightly astonished:  “I thought that the whole purpose of affirmative action was to help students who come from underprivileged backgrounds,” he declared. 

In a nation where rich kids outnumber poor kids at the most selective colleges by 25 to 1, Alito hit upon a central flaw in selective college admissions: the failure to consider socioeconomic disadvantage. Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court can’t order universities to engage in class-based affirmative action. But if the Court does curtail the use of race, ample evidence suggests they will turn to socioeconomic affirmative action as an indirect means to achieving racial and ethnic diversity. As the Century Foundation’s October report, “A Better Affirmative Action,” found, in almost all states where race has been banned in admissions—usually by public referendum—universities have shifted to socioeconomic affirmative action and increased financial aid for low-income and working class students of all races.

* New Approaches to Union Organizing

Although labor unions continued to suffer setbacks nationally, there were signs of hope regarding a new approach which links labor organizing to the nation’s iconic social movement—for civil rights. This summer, in Caton, Mississippi, Nissan workers, most of whom are African American, sought to organize drawing inspiration from the civil rights movement. “The civil rights experience was fought on that very ground,” Gary Casteel of the United Auto Workers told Reuters. “We’ve been saying that worker rights is the civil rights battle of the 21st Century.” 

The strategy is also one that the Century Foundation pushed this year, with publication of a new book, Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right. In March, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka endorsed the proposal, while right-wing critic Ann Coulter denounced it in comments that tellingly sought to divide blacks, labor, women, and immigrants.  Along with other innovative ideas—such as organizing the fast food industry and carwashes—we began to see in 2012 what may be the new face of organized labor.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · December 18, 2012