The Strange Politics of Education Reform

… where conservatives demand change and many alleged progressives, including teacher union elites, are really reactionary.

While this may be old news to some, it can’t be said enough: In our polarized times, education reform is the only truly bipartisan issue, whereas with other matters things invariably break down into Republican vs. Democrat, liberal vs. conservative, libertarian vs. conservative (social issues), libertarian vs. liberal (fiscal issues), etc. 

But in the world of edu-politics, folks from the conservative Heritage Foundation have made common cause with their counterparts at the libertarian Reason Foundation with plenty of room in the big tent for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  

Though not the main theme of an excellent blog post, “Grabbing the Bull By The Horns: Cuomo, Nutter and the Backlash Against Making Sh*t Up,” DFER executive director Joe Williams indirectly points to the odd political bedfellows who are pushing for much needed changes in education.

Williams begins his piece by writing, 

If you’ve ever been the subject of a blog-tirade by either of the Klonsky Brothers or Leo Casey, you understand that these old school reactionaries have made decades-long careers out of pushing bogus propaganda for their cause, i.e. they make sh*t up and hope that nobody calls them on it. 

The joke here is that both Casey and the Klonsky brothers come from Marxist backgrounds but really are, when it comes to education reform, not progressives but reactionaries – fervently protective of the status quo – blindly pro-union, claiming that more money will solve our education woes, all the while fighting against every meaningful way of improving the system. 

On the other hand, we have some big city liberal mayors who are trying to do the right thing in tough fiscal times. Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter and New York’s Andrew Cuomo have closed some poorly attended failing schools. So what’s the problem? The teachers unions in those cities, who profess to be all about the kids, social justice and progressivism, pound the table and insist that our outdated 19th Century Prussian-style zip-code mandated school system continue without any innovation, just more money. These unions desperately fight to maintain the status quo and snuff any real reform – charter schools, vouchers, online schools, etc. As such, it’s time we start tarring union leaders with the reactionary brush. 

And while we are talking reactionaries, perhaps their poster child should be Diane Ravitch. She was a liberal before she became conservative before she became a progressive, but she’s really a reactionary. (She is wrong about so much that she should get an award for “Yes I can make this sh*t up.”) In fact, researcher Jay Greene set aside an entire week on his blog to debunk her endless reactionary blather, which he titled “Ravitch is Wrong Week.” 

And as I wrote last week, Louisiana’s Republican governor Bobby Jindal is trying to do his best for kids by expanding his state’s popular voucher program, only to be slapped down by the allegedly progressive Eric Holder. In reality, our attorney general is doing his best to emulate George Wallace, the segregationist and reactionary former governor of Alabama. 

Then there are those whom the teachers unions love to hurl “right wing” epithets at, like the admittedly conservative Heritage Foundation. There, policy expert Lindsey Burke regularly promotes various decidedly un-reactionary reforms – vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts, etc. Sounds like Ms. Burke is trying to get us out of a complacent, dare I say, reactionary rut. 

Meanwhile, over at the Reason Foundation the decidedly un-reactionary director of education Lisa Snell regularly writes about the importance and benefits of school choice. 

We live in a time where the biggest enemies of change are the teachers unions. They and their fellow travelers espouse progressivism but in reality are clinging to a moribund education system that’s desperately in need of fundamental change. So I guess when you want to get things done in edu-world, look to those who are truly trying to effect real change – conservatives, libertarians and DFER-type liberals, not reactionaries in progressive clothing.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

How Public Sector Unions Skew America’s Public Safety and National Security Agenda

It would be redundant to summarize recent revelations concerning just how big America’s national security state has become. Two reports, both written in the last two days, do a really good job: “The Making of a Global Security State,” by Tom Engelhardt, published by The Nation Institute, and “5 Alarming Things We Should Have Already Known About the NSA, Surveillance, and Privacy Before Ed Snowden,” by Brian Doherty, published by the Reason Foundation.

It is encouraging that both of these articles address the same topic and summon the same moral concerns, despite being published by top-tier think tanks – the Reason Foundation and the Nation Institute – that occupy opposite positions on the right/left continuum. What is discouraging is neither of these articles explore the connection between unionized government and the alarming police state trends they describe so thoroughly.

The centrality of patriotism and law-and-order priorities blinds many on the right to the role of unions in skewing America’s public safety and national security agenda. Reverence for the labor movement blinds those on the left from seeing government unions as complicit in the erosion of civil liberties. These sentiments work against what ought to be a growing bi-partisan consensus: public sector unions do not operate in the economic or political best interests of the general public.

It isn’t hard to find examples from history of how elites co-opted the personnel of government in order to secure a commitment to preserving their power and privilege. From the tenuous relationship between the Roman nobility and their legions of centurions, to the party members of the cold war era communist nations and their security services – authoritarian regimes have always relied on their versions of the Nomenklatura. And the defining characteristic of the Nomenklatura, in all of its historical iterations, was privilege. They were economically exempted from the hardships that faced ordinary citizens.

The power of public employee unions in government is the primary reason that government workers now make approximately twice as much in total compensation as private sector workers. This headline from an a USA Today article explains how federal compensation has outraced the private sector “Federal workers earning double their private counterparts.” California Public Policy Center studies provide recent and ample evidence of the same phenomenon at the state and local level (ref. “Calculating Public Employee Total Compensation,” “California’s Public Safety Compensation Trends, 2000-2010,” “Self-Employed Workers vs. Government Workers – A Financial Comparison,” as well as compensation analyses for the cities of San Jose, Irvine, Costa Mesa, and Anaheim).

Nowhere is the disparity between the fortunes of unionized public sector workers and the private citizens they serve more glaring than in their respective formulas to earn retirement security. Social security pays, on average, about $15,000 per year, starting at age 68. California’s public servants, on the other hand, at the end of a 30 year career can expect to collect on average a pension in excess of $60,000, easily attainable by age 60 or sooner. Tell a self-employed person who must contribute 12.5% of their gross pay to Social Security why they should get 25% as much as a public servant, ten years later in life?

The failure of politicians – abetted by unions – to give all Americans the same deal as government workers alienates Americans from their government and impugns the motives of government policymakers. Frighteningly, it also alienates government workers from Americans.

As we enter an era of ubiquitous surveillance, for good or ill, it is vital that civil libertarians on both sides of the political spectrum recognize that government unions have a vested interest in expanding the size and the powers of government. The inordinate power of public sector unions in California is beyond debate among anyone who closely participates in the political process. Less obvious but equally real is the closely aligned interests of big government unions with the agenda of banks who profit by financing deficits and investing pension assets, large corporations who benefit from over-regulation because it kills emerging competitors, and the high-tech industry that invents and sells tools of surveillance and cyber-war.

A major step towards ensuring that America’s public safety and national security agenda is not divorced from the general interests of private American citizens would be a bipartisan call for all taxpayer funded, government administered retirement benefits to be earned by every citizen – public or private – according to the same set of incentives and formulas. The vehemence with which public sector unions would fight this necessary reform might finally provide sufficient evidence to liberals of how selective their concern is for “working families.” This one dramatic policy shift would go far towards realigning the interests of government workers with that of the citizens they serve.

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UnionWatch is edited by Ed Ring, who can be reached at

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