(Mary Altaffer/AP)

“The teachers unions are the clearest example of a group that has lost its way. Whenever anyone dares to offer a new idea, the unions protest the loudest. Their attitude was memorably expressed by a longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers: He said, quote, ‘When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children.’ ”

— Mitt Romney in an education speech at the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit in Washington, D.C, May 23, 2012

Mitt Romney veered from his standard talking points about the sluggish economy Wednesday to talk about education reform, a subject he said would be the top issue of the 2012 election if it weren’t for the housing crisis and the state of the economy. The presumptive GOP presidential nominee claimed that President Obama has bowed to powerful teachers unions, which he blamed for maintaining the status quo with failing schools.

The quote Romney cited could represent a serious indictment of teachers unions and their priorities, but only if the Republican candidate is correct in saying that it came from a longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers. We searched for evidence that a former head of that educators’ group, the second-largest of its kind in the United States, had really made such a statement.

For what it’s worth, the quote has appeared on a Madison, Wis.-area billboard sponsored by the self-proclaimed nonpartisan group Reforming Education And Demanding Exceptional Results in Wisconsin (READER-WI), according to a blogger for the left-leaning site Daily Kos.

The Facts

A search on Wikipedia reveals that the quote in question appears in an entry for the late Albert Shanker, a teachers union icon who served as president of the American Federation of Teachers for more than 20 years. The statement is listed under the heading “Disputed quote,” which should have been an immediate red flag for the Romney campaign.

A footnote on the Wikipedia page attributes the quote to an article in the monthly magazine the Atlantic, but that piece was written by Joel Klein, a former New York City schools chancellor who later became executive vice president of News Corp. Klein inevitably would have butted heads with teachers unions while heading the Big Apple’s school system, since he had to negotiate employee contracts and implement higher student-achievement standards.

The Wikipedia entry also explains that the Albert Shanker Institute tried to pin down the source of the quote supposedly made by its namesake. The group discovered what appears to be a first reference to the alleged quote in an unbylined 1985 article in the Meridian Star newspaper of Meridian, Miss. Here’s how the passage read:

“American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker may have hit the key difference between his organization and both the public and the legislature a couple of years ago when he said, ‘When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.’”

The Meridian Star article was titled, “Teacher unions made their bed, must sleep in it.” This suggests that the quote came from an opinion piece or that the editor didn’t know how to write an unbiased headline.

We found the article on microfiche at the Library of Congress. Sure enough, it was an editorial from the newspaper staff.

The Shanker Institute traced the alleged remark back to three other sources: a 1993 article in the Washington Times by libertarian economist Walter Williams, a 1995 book by the same author (page 83), and a 1997 study from a conservative think tank (page 176). All attributed the comments either directly or indirectly to the Congressional Record from August 1985.

The institute determined that the quote doesn’t appear in any Congressional Record entry from August 1985 but that it does show up by way of Reps. Dick Armey (R-Tex.) and Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who mentioned it in 1994 and 2001, respectively.

We went to the Library of Congress to search for the alleged quote in the Congressional Record since the free online database only goes back to 1989. Shanker is not on record as making the statement any time between 1979 and 1986. If the union boss uttered those words in 1985, or even a few years before then, as the Meridian Star suggested, it didn’t happen at a congressional hearing.

Shanker did mention something slightly related on Aug. 1, 1985. Here he is talking about trying to weigh in as a union representative on the need for education reforms:

“Typically the school board said this: ‘You’re a union. We’ll be happy to talk with you about the salaries and working conditions teachers want. But we will not talk to you about anything that’s good for children, because you weren’t elected to represent the children. Professional issues are not subject to negotiation.’ ”

Shanker was expressing frustration with the notion that teacher and student interests don’t go hand-in-hand. It’s quite possible that union critics twisted his words 180 degrees to claim that he doesn’t care about the needs of schoolchildren.

The Shanker Institute has noted that none of the authors who ever used the alleged quote “bothered to provide a source — a date, an event, anything.” The group consulted Shanker’s former staff members, who suggested the former union leader might have said something to this effect: “I don’t represent children. I represent teachers.… But generally, what’s in the interest of teachers is also in the interest of students.”

A Nexis search of the phrase “When school children start paying union dues” provided us with 21 results, nearly all of which consisted of clearly labeled editorials and opinion pieces that referenced the quote as secondhand information. We found no news articles that mentioned the comment Romney repeated.

A 1993 editorial in the Orange County Register seems to suggest that Shanker made the alleged remark while fighting a school-voucher initiative in California that year. Here’s an excerpt:

“The establishment campaign was marked by contempt for truth, logic, and consistent, coherent thinking patterns.

Then there’s that callous attitude toward students revealed during the campaign. Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was quoted as saying: ‘When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing school children.’”

Perhaps the author meant to say that Shanker was quoted “at some point in his life” as making this comment. But the average reader would assume the union boss made it that very year. Maybe he repeated this incriminating line time and again in his life, but we doubt it.

It’s worth noting that some of Shanker’s later ideas match those of modern-day conservatives, especially when it comes to student testing and teacher accountability. The Atlantic article by Klein quotes Shanker as saying: “The key is that unless there is accountability, we will never get the right system. As long as there are no consequences if kids or adults don’t perform, as long as the discussion is not about education and student outcomes, then we’re playing a game as to who has the power.”

The definitive book on Shanker, titled “Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy,” describes the controversial union leader as a complex man who evolved from combative labor organizer to champion of education reform.

We contacted the book’s author, Richard Kahlenberg, an education expert and a senior fellow with the left-leaning Century Foundation. He said this about the alleged Shanker comment:

“I did try checking with various authors to verify the quote, and no one could point with accuracy to when and where he said it, which seems odd. It is possible he did say it, maybe in the early days before he strongly embraced education reform, but I wasn’t able to track it down.”

The Romney campaign didn’t answer questions about how the Republican candidate came up with the alleged quote by Shanker.

The Pinocchio Test

It’s not our place to judge whether the quote that Romney cited illustrates the true priorities of teachers unions. But we can certainly try to trace the comment attributed to Shanker and determine whether he ever really made it.

It’s virtually impossible to prove a negative, but the evidence suggests that the quote didn’t come from Shanker and that someone with an agenda probably twisted his words. All the examples we found came from biased sources that failed to explain when and where the union leader issued the comment. (We welcome readers to contact us with any information we might have missed.)

As our readers know, false information can take on a life of its own. We once awarded Four Pinocchios to Obama for describing President Rutherford B. Hayes as a technology skeptic who didn’t think much of the telephone. It turns out that Hayes described the then-novel device as “wonderful” when he first used it in 1877, and he was the first commander in chief to install one in the White House.

Obama’s team argued that we shouldn’t ding the president for his mistake, because multiple sources, including numerous media outlets, and even Encyclopedia Britannica, had made references to the same claim. But we decided Obama’s speech writers should have been more careful and exhaustive in their research before having Obama so thoroughly trash one of his predecessors, especially because there was definitive proof of Hayes’s views in the Hayes Presidential Library. (Oddly, the alleged quote appears to have started as a joke by President Ronald Reagan.)

Romney’s reference to the supposed Shanker comment is a bit different, since it’s not provably false. Still, the claim relies exclusively on biased sources that never attributed the union leader’s remark to a particular time or event, to the best of our knowledge. As such, the Republican presidential candidate earns Two Pinocchios for repeating an unsubstantiated quote.

Two Pinocchios

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