Al Shanker would not be a good recruit for the Tea Party. His circumstance and upbringing were more like Barack Obama’s.
He was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family; he became an advocate of societal change after watching his mother work 70-hour weeks.
He attended the University of Illinois where he joined the Young People’s Socialist League. He graduated and enrolled in Columbia University to study teaching and became a substitute teacher in New York.
In 1959, he organized a local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers which merged into the United Federation of Teachers.
Shanker left teaching to become the United Federation’s president. In 1967 he served a jail term for leading an illegal teacher strike which closed New York schools for 36 days.
Later he became president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of two national teacher unions.
With that background you would think that Shanker might follow the official party line of the organizations he headed.
Had he not died prematurely of bladder cancer in 1997, you have to wonder how he might feel about the teacher union sponsored Nevada ballot question voters will decide this November which would impose a tax on gross business receipts.
If passed, the measure would cause all revenues raised from the new tax to be dedicated to K-12 education in the Silver State.
Shanker was motivated to organize and run labor unions for teachers in response to arbitrary decisions, actions and orders by school administrators.
As the unions evolved and collective bargaining contracts took the place of labor strikes he began to realize that the monster he helped create was turning out a worse evil than the monster it was formed to combat.
He noted that America’s entire system of public schools is oblivious to the requirement for performance accountability.
Things had come to a point where there were few or no consequences for poor performance for either adults or students.
“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…” Shanker said. “You see if nothing is at stake, everybody’s got rules that have nothing to do with outcomes.”
How does accountability get instilled in a government-run monopoly where teachers effectively cannot be fired?
“Teachers need unions as long as there are managers pushing them around to do all sorts of irrational things and things they believe are unjust,” Shanker said. “So the question is: what does a union do in a school that doesn’t have a hierarchical management, where teachers themselves are making a lot of the decisions, not on the basis of union rules but on the basis of intelligent judgment?”
In answering his own questions Shanker said: “I think we will get … and deserve … the end of public education through some sort of privatization scheme if we don’t behave differently.”
He lived long enough to see the beginning of his prediction come true when a student voucher system was enacted in Milwaukee, Wisc.
Not long after that the charter school movement began in Minnesota and, in the year of Shanker’s death, became enacted into law in Nevada.
In 1960, Nevada spent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, $3,168 per student; in 2010, that figure was $8,950 … nearly triple the amount … with declining student performance over that period.
Nevada does not need a new tax to improve education — we need accountability.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada Republican Central Committees.