Cory Booker and the Teachers' Unions: Reframing the Debate

Published August 28th, 2013 -  - 08.28.132


Yesterday at Slate.com, Matthew Yglesias weighed in on the question of why some liberals are uncomfortable with Cory Booker.  Yglesias thinks there’s a pretty clear answer: “Liberals don’t like Booker because he’s an education reformer – a board member of Democrats for Education Reform, a group that pushes charter schools and test-based teacher assessments and other ideas that labor unions representing America’s teachers don’t like.”  Or, as the Slate headline read, “Liberals Don’t like Cory Booker Because Cory Booker Doesn’t Love Teachers Unions.”

Yglesias makes some good arguments in pressing his point.  His basic idea is that there’s a big divide in the Democratic Party about education reform, and, more particularly, a “divide over how to frame the divide.”  Because “reformers” want to present the education debate as unions vs. minority kids, “people of color such as Booker . . . [are] particularly valuable faces of the cause.”  This makes sense.  What makes less sense, though, is the claim that supporters of teachers’ unions could account for all that much of the liberal unease with Booker.  I don’t think there are enough people out there (even among liberals) who support teachers unions to account for the liberal grumbling.  Witness Alex Pareene’s piece in Salon, Noam Scheiber’s in The New Republic, or The Daily Kos’s commentary on the subject.  Could it really be Booker’s views on teachers’ unions that’s “driving” these critiques, as Yglesias claims?

But this is almost beside the point because Yglesias’ post does raise an important issue for people interested in labor politics.  Public sector unions have been under withering attack from the political right for decades, and particularly so in the last few years.  The largest and most powerful of these public unions, the teachers’ unions, are somewhat unique in facing political attack from both sides.  Booker is an important symbol of this difficulty for the teachers’ unions.  He is a prominent liberal who believes that teachers’ unions can be a problem for the success of schools.

Here’s how the City Journal described Booker’s comments at the Democratic convention in 2008:

Particularly outspoken was Newark’s Cory Booker, who noted how “vicious” teachers’ unions can be in their efforts to stymie reform: “Ten years ago, when I started talking about school choice, I was tarred and feathered,” Booker noted. “I literally was brought into a room by a [teachers’] union [representative] . . . and threatened that I would never win in office if I kept talking about school choice, if I kept talking about charter schools . . . there are billboards all over my city paid for by the teachers’ unions attacking me and I don’t even have mayoral control yet. I just tell the truth about what’s going on.” Booker implored Democratic office holders to “have the political will to stand up against these phenomenally powerful interests” and suggested that “when I started talking about this, I had so many Democratic establishment folks turn their backs on me, and it was Republicans in America that were willing to donate to my campaign in Newark, New Jersey. So we have to understand as Democrats that we have been wrong on education; it’s time to get right.”

These comments are somewhat dated, and Booker’s views have tempered with time.  But the point remains that the problem for teachers unions is not just coming from Republicans or the right.  It’s coming from nearly everywhere, including liberals who think that the unions are protecting the interests of their members – and, in particular, that (small subset) of their members who are bad teachers – at the expense of school kids.

Ygslesias is also right that the fight over how to frame the fight over teachers’ unions is crucial.  So let me offer a different frame, different, that is, from the current ones which present the question as whether or not we should have unions in the schools.  The fight about teachers’ unions, for liberals at least, should be over what kind of teachers’ unions we want, not whether we should have teachers’ unions at all.

Teachers – you probably know one or two – need a voice in the workplace.  They need protection against arbitrary management decisions.  And, as parents of school children or as members of the public interested in a good public school system, we ought to want teachers’ voices included in decision making over how schools are run.  Unions are the best way of ensuring this kind of voice.  At the same time, we don’t want a teachers’ union that pushes seniority, or tenure, or other membership interests at the expense of educational quality.

What we need are the right kind of teachers’ unions.  This is what liberals should be fighting over: how to make sure we have good teachers’ unions, defined as those that give teachers a voice while also advancing educational quality.

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