Saturday, July 7, 2012

This Week's (Oxy)morons: Republicans in the NEA

A lot has happened since my last essay, but I’ll do what I can to catch up. First on the list is a fairly recent story: yesterday’s piece by Josh Lederman on HuffPo about Republican teachers’ discontent at what the headline describes as an “Obama-Centric Union Conference” of the National Education Association.

It strikes me that three points need to be made.

#1: No union conference ought to have the feel of a political rally. It’s reasonable, I suppose, to endorse a candidate, but it’s another matter altogether to boo or shout down someone with opposing political views at an event which at least ostensibly is not primarily political in nature. Encouraging delegates to hold “house parties” to “educate their friends about why Obama… deserves a second term” and presenting conference attendees with t-shirts inscribed with Obama’s name: a bit much, to say the least. More to the point, if the NEA wants to endorse Obama based on his education policies, that is certainly their right… but singing the praises of the ACA strikes me as being more than a little outside the reasonable parameters of relevance.

#2. Buried in Lederman’s article is a revealing mention of something called the NEA Republican Leaders Conference, an attempt by the national organization to be more inclusive of a wider range of political views. This is apparently not a mere bone tossed to GOP teachers, as it is treated with no little respect by the Republican NEA members themselves. Anne Loeffler of Pennsylvania, for instance,
… reported that the Republican conferences occur because the annual NEA Representative Assembly voted to fund this effort in an attempt to reach out and give a voice to… Republican members. “So often, we hear that NEA and PSEA [Pennsylvania State Education Association] only support Democratic Party candidates. These efforts demonstrate that our union believes in supporting candidates who work to improve our public schools and the lives of the children we educate regardless of party affiliation.”
And, indeed, whereas the NEA has never endorsed a Republican for President, they have done so at many other levels of political office.

#3. While I have some sympathy for the GOP members of the NEA, I confess I’m not all that concerned. Davina Keiser, the head of the Republican caucus in the NEA, whines that “For Republican teachers, it's almost like we're stepchildren in NEA, and then in the Republican Party we're also stepchildren, because we're public schoolteachers, and that's not part of their focus.” She’s kidding, right? “Not part of their focus”?

We’re not talking about just teachers here; we’re talking about members of a teachers union. As such, Keiser and her colleagues are very much “part of [the] focus” of the GOP: as targets, as scapegoats, as cover for failed and often corrupt policies. True, education is not at the center of Governor Romney’s campaign. True, too, that the Obama administration has had what I’d call a spotty record on education issues. But it surpasses credulity that a member of the NEA doesn’t understand that her profession and especially her union affiliation within that profession have been not de-emphasized, but actively demonized, by Rick Snyder, Rick Perry, Rick Scott (why do so many idiot governors have to be named Rick?), Scott Walker, Mitch Daniels, John Kasich... need I continue?

There is a spiral effect here, of course, and I’m not going to attempt to place blame. It’s certainly true that the NEA and the other big public-school union, the American Federation of Teachers, have leaned well to the left for as long as I can remember. And, increasingly of late, the GOP has pushed back with a series of policy initiatives that appear to be based at least as much on pique as on philosophy. All of which means the NEA becomes more skeptical of Republicans—any Republicans, including potential allies—which in turn… well, Gentle Reader, you get the picture.

I am, as I’ve said before, no huge fan of unions, especially in professions. I’ve twice voted against organizing a union, twice passed on the opportunity to join an existing union, and never even joined the “union light” American Association of University Professors. This doesn’t mean, however, that I am unappreciative of the motives or efforts of those who see unionization as the most viable means by which to improve the conditions of employment. Faced with the political climate that exists now, I might have taken a different position with respect to unionization when those decisions were made years ago.

Of course, teachers unions have become a handy whipping-boy for unbalanced budgets actually created by Republican governors and state legislatures granting tax breaks to fat-cats and corporate cronies. Still, some of this derision is in fact deserved: sort of. As I’ve said here repeatedly in the past, anything that is negotiated can’t be blamed on one side alone. If, not-so-hypothetically, the NEA has pushed for policies that have the de facto effect of making it harder to get rid of bad teachers, those initiatives wouldn’t mean anything unless someone on the other side of the negotiating table agreed to them, in exchange for lower pay or larger class sizes or whatever. So don’t give me any “it’s all because of the unions” crap. It isn’t so, and any honest person will admit that.

The bottom line here is that an NEA delegate—not merely a member, a delegate—who actively identifies as a Republican is probably an idiot, just as a member of the #Occupy movement who buys a single share of Bank of America and expects to be granted a platform at a stockholders meeting is an idiot. Being an active Republican and being an NEA delegate are indeed in opposition, far more so now than was the case only a couple of years ago, before the recent flurry of GOP rhetoric blaming teachers in general, unions in general, and teachers unions in particular for everything from budget deficits to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.

So Ms. Keiser and her compatriots really do have to choose between their politics and their profession (or at least their union engagement). They can have either, or neither, but they can’t have both. And being butt-hurt in the first degree doesn’t change that.

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