The recent strike by the Washington Teachers' Union proceeded according to what has become a weary pattern. A dispute begins over a non-wage issue, whose meaning or importance is difficult for the public to comprehend. The teachers walk out, and a few observers recall, apparently for nostalgia's sake, that strikes by public employees are illegal. The strike becomes sufficiently painful to the public that both sides, the teachers and the school board, are urged to be reasonable. By that point, the strike story is being told in terms of court orders and injunctions, and the internal politics of the union.
Yet something vital to the community has been settled, or rather lost: the effort to reassert public control over the operation and purpose of public schools. Judge Gladys Kessler, in ordering an end to the dispute, said "the public interest cries out for opening of school." The public's immediate convenience-and perhaps that of the judge also-was served by ending the dispution. But the public has a much more fundamental interest in the way the schools work, day by day, year by year.
The collapse of taxpayer supported education in our cities has become on of those strange American inventions: a problem that is no longer an issue. It is a problem, of course, in the sense that we are obliged to acknowlege and bemoan its costs. It is no longer an issue in our politics, because few contenders for major office really propose to cure it. It has become, in some cities, like some medieval plague-you move away from it or count on avoiding it by being in a sufficiently remote income class. Mobility and nobility substitute for remedy.
Two sorts of people insist on trying to salvage public schools. The first are the middle-income and city-bound families for whom public schools are the only choice. The second includes chiefly a few educational specialists and academics. The first group is long on desperation but short on educational or political sophistication. The second group is often short on realism about the way decisions are reached in urban America.Both groups appear to think that reforming education is largely a matter of new money, or new classrooms, or either new or old educational theories.
Any or all of these may be desirable, but let me emphasize a more basic condition: Before any real progress can be made, some public body must begin to take responsibility for, and assert control over, both teachers and schools.
That is what the Board of Education was attempting to do: to seek accountability of teachers to school principals and the board. And the fact of their attempt was infinitely more important than he precise terms they sought, or the polish and adroitness can be retained by the cabful near Farragut Square. A willingness to take responsibility, especially for something as urgent as education, is rare in Washington. Reacting to this attempt, Kessler ordered an extension of the teachers' old contract, severely restraining the school board's control over teachers. And just in case the lesson was missed, the judge barred the board from disciplinary strikers.
In spite of their formal independence, judges tend to be the trendiest of public officials. In the 19th century, they gave us the retribution we thirsted for in our criminal justice system. Today, they sense that many parents must mind the teacher's failure to perform their custodial function for three weeks more than the one-to three-year educational lag students have accumulated by the time they graduate high school. They teachers' union has parents in a nice squeeze. Economics compels them to send their children to public schools generally require both parents to work and, therefore, make them especially dependent upon the schools' supervision of children.
The rest of us have even less apparent incentive to regret a settlement. Mayor Marion Barry would like the schools to educate, but only as hard-pressed mayors would like many things to work the way they are supposed to. He knows that uninvolved citizens increasingly ask only the illusion of activity from public institutions, and that of the costs of that illusion not increase dramatically. For now, it's enough that "teachers are back in the classroom" and that children are no longer "pawns in an unnecessary dispute."
But it was a necessary dispute, and it needs to be refought and won-by the public.
Control over education seems to have slipped completely out of the public's grasp; and the effective right of city employees to strike appears to have been firmly established. In many cities, only one practical check on union intransigence is recognized: the insolvency or severely straitened financial circumstances of the local government. But this works only as a negative check on how much total payrolls can possibly rise. It cannot be used to reestablish the principles of public accountability and effective job performance.
To reestablish those principles, the public needs to approach impending contract disputes with a realistic view of what it has at stake and a willingness to use its advantages.
A clear chain of responsibility, running from teachers through principals and administrators to elected officicals, is essential to any hope of improving public schools. Preserving that hope is worth the inconvenience, bitterness, and even temporary educational sacrifices, of a prolonged strike.
It is also worth enforcing the law. The full penalties of the law should be applied and, if need be, strengthened. There should be no embarrasment or pessimism about making the penalties as stern as necessary to discourage further strikes. If, after all, penalties cannot be used to deter misbehavior by middle-income professionals, upon whom should any legal punishment be visited? Teachers are not frenzied desperados, incapabale of recognizing risks.
The men and women who teach the District's schoolchildren are the ones upon whom the quality of education ultimately depends. But they cannot be the ones whom the voters hold directly responsible. The school board has that duty, and the next time it tries to fulfill it, the community should support the board until it succeeds.