Superintendent Rhee’s Offer
Why did the union refuse to bring Superintendent Michelle Rhee’s offer to a vote? The answer to this question lies in the spurious nature of the so-called “tenure” system in public education. “Tenure” suggests both professional independence and security. That is to say, it not only suggests the security of “tenured” faculty, but also the academic, programmatic, curricular independence of the professional body offering tenure. But, as we have already seen, for public school systems, “tenure” has been reduced simply to job security, i.e., protection against arbitrary decisions by management. School teachers, in fact, enjoy virtually no professional independence or curricular discretion. Nor, by law, can they. What they teach is subject, in its entirety, to the will of non-professionals; ultimately to citizens who vote for school board members, council members, and state legislators.
What this means is that Michelle Rhee’s offer to grant Washington, DC, teachers professional status and independence was an offer she had no authority to make, and surely had no authority to enforce. No matter how the vote might have turned out, Washington, DC, teachers would have enjoyed no more professional, curricular, independence after the vote as before. The only effect the vote could have had would have been to deprive the union of the only right it had: to protect its members from arbitrary management decisions. In other words, it would have been a lose-lose vote for the union.
Nevertheless, we can well appreciate Michelle Rhee’s frustration as well as the frustration of concerned adults throughout the Washington, DC, area. In many ways, it would be far better for our public schools were teachers empowered with real tenure—and real professional responsibility—than the spurious tenure system it now has. Just as it would be better if the health, well-being, and livelihoods of working families was considered separately from how we educate our children. Tragically, on both fronts, the United States is the lone exception among advanced industrialized nations. Just as all other advanced industrialized nations provide universal health care, housing, education, and old age security to their citizens; so no other advanced industrialized nation would ever hand decisions respecting academic content over to individuals who enjoy no competence in the fields being taught.
So, where does that leave us? Does it leave us still waiting for superman or superwoman? I hope not. The issue now, as it has always been, is not how we can nurture and educate children who enjoy the support of interested and available adults; but how we can nurture and educate children who, for whatever reason, do not enjoy this support. And, the question is whether we help such children by undermining organized labor, or by removing public oversight and public regulatory authority from our institutions of public education. I would suggest not. Rather than weakening the bargaining power of teachers and their families, we would do far better to help organized bargaining units who represent teachers also become the responsible professional bodies they should and need to be.
Davis Guggenheim could have exposed an inconvenient truth. The neo-liberals and conservatives whose rhetoric dominates the debate over public education feel that public school teachers are paid far too much, that our public schools cost far too much, that they are subject to far too much public oversight and regulation, and that private corporations and managers should play a more central role in our children’s education. This, however, is an easy lie. The story Guggenheim might have told would have shown how we can ensure a sufficient preponderance of adults who have the interest, energy and time necessary to leave a positive impact on public education. He did not. And the loss is ours.