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Naught for Teacher

How Democrats abet the right’s war on public education

The poll results were ominous. In a survey of Houston teachers in late 2023, more than 42 percent said they wouldn’t be returning for the next school year. That’s on top of the teachers who’ve recently left Texas’s largest school district. Between last August and early January 2024, 633 teachers resigned, more than double the number that left during the second pandemic school year of 2021–2022.

Such data should be cause for alarm in a state that is now losing a record number of teachers. While Texas, which employs more than 370,000 teachers, typically lost roughly 10 percent of them annually prior to the pandemic, that number has since spiked. In the most recent school year, nearly fifty thousand Texas teachers headed for the exits, citing stagnant pay, soaring stress levels, and culture wars that have made educators a political punching bag.

In Houston, however, the high departure rate is intentional. In a controversial move, Texas took control over the district of 276 schools last year. Citing the persistently low test scores of a single school, the state dissolved the democratically elected school board and installed a new boss: Mike Miles, a former Army Ranger who has become the education equivalent of a corporate turnaround artist.

In eighty-five of the city’s schools, teachers now have to deliver scripted lessons via PowerPoint, quizzing students constantly to measure their performance, while a procession of administrators passes in and out, surveilling teachers’ adherence to the new policies. Teacher salaries are determined not by experience but by the “importance” of the subject taught: higher for instructors of tested subjects, lower for those teaching extracurriculars like art and music. Teachers who aren’t down with Miles’s “New Education System” have been encouraged to leave. “If you really don’t like the NES schools, that’s okay,” Miles told teachers in a video last fall. “It’s understandable, it’s not for everybody. So, choose.”

Meanwhile, the governor of Texas spent much of last year deriding public school teachers, but not because of test scores and achievement gaps. Governor Greg Abbott wants taxpayers to pay for parents to send their kids to private religious schools whose performance the state doesn’t track and whose teachers the state doesn’t license. In his effort to secure this top policy priority, Abbott has leaned in hard to the school culture wars, demonizing teachers as groomers and indoctrinators. At an event with Texas pastors last winter, Abbott warned of what he called “an extraordinary movement to expand transgenderism in schools in the state of Texas,” accusing teachers in the state’s public schools of “using their positions to try to cultivate and groom these young kids” into changing genders.

Just two years ago, Abbott ordered the creation of an emergency task force to look into the state’s worsening teacher shortage. The group’s recommendations, including hiking teacher pay and improving working conditions, have gone nowhere. Instead, the far right and the neoliberal center appear united in seeking to drive out the “bad” teacher, even if they disagree on the nature of her sins.

A similar dynamic is playing out across the country. In recent years, teachers have been leaving the profession in droves. A national analysis published last June found that teacher departures have risen markedly in the wake of the pandemic, reaching record numbers in states including Texas, Washington, and Louisiana. Meanwhile, teachers still in the classroom report unsustainable levels of stress and burnout. And as bleak as the present moment may be, the future looks even worse. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs has nosedived, while parents are increasingly discouraging their kids from becoming teachers. In the most recent Phi Delta Kappan poll of attitudes toward schools and teachers, 62 percent of the thousand adults surveyed said that teaching wasn’t a good profession for young people, the highest figure in the history of the fifty-five-year-old survey.

Yet even as the alarms sound regarding the state of the profession, there is a remarkable fixation upon the bad teacher, the definition of “bad” steadily morphing and expanding. Today’s bad teacher stands accused of an impossible range of offenses, from failing to raise student test scores to grooming Marxist revolutionaries and smuggling anti-Israel propaganda into her lesson plans. And while panic pieces over teacher shortages typically pin the blame upon the pandemic and its aftermath, what’s happening today is actually the latest iteration of a much older story: the decades-long, and thoroughly bipartisan, demonization of teachers and their unions.

Race to the Bottom

Long before President Trump warned that “we have pink-haired communists teaching our kids,” the Obama Administration presided over an education panic of its own. The target was the public school teacher, who, through her ineptness and iron-clad union protections, was holding back generations of kids, if not dragging down the entire economy. As journalist Dana Goldstein wrote in her history of what she called America’s most embattled profession, the “ineffective tenured teacher has emerged as a feared character, a vampiric type who sucks tax dollars into her bloated pension and health care plans, without much regard for the children under her care.”

Today’s bad teacher stands accused of an impossible range of offenses, from failing to raise student test scores to grooming Marxist revolutionaries and smuggling anti-Israel propaganda into their lesson plans.

A key component of the Obama-era education reform theory of change was that by making it easier to fire bad teachers, new, better, smarter teachers would take their place. Arne Duncan, Obama’s education chief and basketball buddy, was fond of arguing that the nation’s educators weren’t exactly geniuses. (“A significant proportion of new teachers come from the bottom third of their college class,” he bemoaned in a 2014 speech.) If only the nation’s schools could employ “top third talent,” as a 2010 McKinsey report put it, a long list of improvements would logically follow, student achievement and college attendance endlessly rising, until the United States outsmarted all of the other countries in the world.

The goal of replacing the bad teachers with new, better versions who would have fewer union protections emerged as a national cause, attracting support from deep-pocketed donors and politicians both red and blue. Thanks to bad teacher flicks like Waiting for “Superman” (2010) and Won’t Back Down (2012), the causes of firing teachers who failed to raise student test scores, and expanding urban charter schools staffed by non-union teachers, became media phenomena. While Superman fared poorly at the box office, it attracted support from a long list of celebrities, including Alec Baldwin, Oprah Winfrey, and John Legend, and was even screened at the 2012 Democratic Convention.

By the waning days of the Obama Administration, the bad teacher panic was running out of steam. The Common Core state standards, Obama’s signature education reform, spawned a furious backlash on the Tea Party right, which saw not just federal overreach but a communist plot. Teachers revolted at another policy priority: the get-tough evaluations holding them accountable for students’ standardized test scores. By 2017, nearly every state had adopted one of these, thanks to billions of dollars in federal largesse in the form of Race to the Top funds. In order to participate in this competitive grant program, states had to adopt the administration’s favored policy prescriptions, including expanding charter schools and weakening teacher job protections. But the much-vaunted theory of change that cracking down on teachers would mean better student outcomes would come to naught. Multiple studies have now determined that the reforms produced what one researcher described as “null effects” on student achievement. The effect on teacher morale, meanwhile, was measurable and significant. The Obama years kicked off a downward slope that has yet to bottom out.

Trump, by contrast, had little to say about teachers, good or bad. His controversial pick for secretary of education, conservative billionairess Betsy DeVos, had spent much of her adult life trying to wipe out teachers’ unions in her home state of Michigan, but she was largely indifferent to the Obama obsession with better teachers and the standardized tests now used to measure their quality. She had a single policy goal: to get kids out of public schools and into any alternative, especially private religious institutions. DeVos’s fervent embrace of school choice presented a conundrum for the education reform wing of the Democratic Party. Suddenly, high-profile Democrats like Cory Booker were left trying to distinguish their brand of tough talk on public education from hers.

Then came Covid-19. As schools went virtual, turning kitchens and living rooms into classrooms, teachers were hailed as superheroes. It wouldn’t last. Indeed, a more expansive—and explosive—panic was already taking hold. Teachers and their unions were keeping schools closed, went the new lament, destroying the academic futures and mental health of students in the process. The pandemic-era version of the bad teacher refused to teach at all, obsessed as she was with the dubious “science” coming down from Anthony Fauci et al. With their children attending school on Zoom, parents could see this latest iteration of the bad teacher for themselves. Many didn’t like what they observed. Suddenly, right-wing media was ablaze with reports of youngsters being indoctrinated into becoming social justice warriors, haters of America, and gender transitioners.

The pandemic would eventually ebb, and schools reopened, but the bad teacher only tightened her hold on the nation’s psyche. Obama-era teacher evaluation policies aimed at culling the profession of low performers now often exist side-by-side with education gag orders. Currently in place in twenty-one states, these policies threaten teachers with dismissal or lawsuits if they venture into content areas that legislators have declared off-limits. And teachers’ unions, that reliable bogeyman for both parties for the past four decades, are today viewed as a hindrance to wildly contradictory policy goals, from student achievement to student salvation.

Unholy Union

The fliers urging Missouri teachers to stop paying union dues arrived with holiday cards late last year. “Put your own present under the tree!” proclaimed the missive from the Freedom Foundation, a conservative anti-union group bankrolled by a familiar list of right-wing billionaire families—DeVos, Koch, Bradley. The return card came pre-addressed to the executive director of the state’s largest teachers’ union, which has thirty-two thousand members, most of them public school district employees.

“This attack on unions is all we hear,” says Jessica Piper, a former teacher in rural Maryville, in the northwest corner of the state. Since leaving her job in 2021 to run for the state legislature, Piper has emerged as a prominent Democratic Party activist and a vocal critic of conservative-led efforts to dismantle the state’s schools.

Nationwide, Missouri ranks near the bottom on a range of education indicators, including teacher pay and school funding. Teacher shortages are now so severe that 30 percent of schools in the state have adopted a four-day school week. Teachers’ unions are also historically weak here: teachers can’t strike, and as Piper notes, rural teachers typically don’t belong to a union at all but to an association more akin to a club than an organized entity with real bargaining power.

A key component of the Obama-era education reform theory of change was that by making it easier to fire bad teachers, new, better, smarter teachers would take their place.

And yet a growing movement of conservative school choice advocates are casting Missouri’s teachers’ unions as the main impediment to realizing their goal of replacing public schools with the private, Christian variety. The Herzog Foundation, seeded from the fortune of Missouri railroad construction magnate Stanley Herzog, is now a political power player in the state. Tied to a number of political action committees bankrolling GOP candidates, its stated mission is to “catalyze and accelerate the development of quality Christ-centered K-12 education.” Herzog’s assortment of media channels—podcasts, an online publication, an active X presence—churn out a steady stream of school outrage stories involving woke educators and indoctrination hot spots. The anecdotes vary from critical race theory to sexually explicit books, but they are connected by a single throughline: “progressive” teachers and their unions are on the wrong side of a cultural battle for the souls of kids.

It isn’t just the right that views teachers’ unions with hostility in Missouri. In St. Louis, influential Democrats and deep-pocketed nonprofits are pushing to dramatically expand charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run and almost always staffed by non-union teachers. Of approximately forty charter schools in the city, operated by fifteen charter school networks, just one is unionized.

The charter school project emerged forty years ago in response to another fervent push from the right to move youngsters from public schools—which were then being blamed for luring kids away from religion and into “secular humanism” and the homosexual lifestyle—into private religions institutions. Charters were the great compromise, intended to appeal to critics of the nation’s beleaguered public schools from the right, left, and center.

Bill Clinton was an ardent pitchman for the cause, selling charter schools as an innovation. Labor discipline was integral to his neoliberal vision. Teachers would be able to create and run these new schools, Clinton told the nation in his 1996 State of the Union address, but they could only keep the charter “if they do a good job.” That the charter project emerged at the very center of his small government agenda was no coincidence. In moving the Democrats away from their redistributionist past and its traditional power centers, Clinton et al. also had to weaken the grip of unions, and especially teachers’ unions, upon the party.

Four decades later, the argument that kids do better when their teachers have fewer rights and protections remains the mainstream Democratic view. The Biden Administration recently kicked in $35.5 million to open additional charter schools in St. Louis and other Missouri metro areas, despite a decidedly mixed track record. Of the three dozen charter school operators that have set up shop in St. Louis since 2000, more than half have been forced to close due to either financial or academic problems. The result has been a chaotic education landscape, with new schools opening and closing constantly, even as the population of students in the city continues to shrink. And yet the imperative to open new, union-free schools remains essentially baked into Democratic policy. The federal Charter School Program (CSP), started under Clinton and expanded under Obama, now grants almost half a billion dollars per year to create and expand charters, including in St. Louis, where news of the award recently spurred strong local backlash and demands for the Department of Education to take the money back. Last year, a CSP grant of nearly $2 million went to a so-called classical academy allied with Hillsdale College, which seeks to open as many conservative charter schools as possible as a means of vanquishing “the far Left on the battleground of education.”

Take Me to Church

In an influential 2022 post on the Law and Political Economy Project blog, legal scholar Kate Redburn observed that the neoliberal love affair with public-private partnerships as a means of delivering essential services—a romance one could argue is embodied by Clinton’s embrace of charter schools—has led us to the slipperiest of slopes. Privatization, claimed Redburn, has essentially cleared the way for legal activists to impose their conservative Christian social vision upon formerly public institutions.

Redburn was referring specifically to school voucher programs in which the state contracts out the provision of K-12 education to private entities. But a more damning example has since emerged. Last year, encouraged by a string of education-related Supreme Court decisions, including Carson v. Makin, which held that it was unconstitutional for Maine to exclude religious schools from a private-school-choice program, Oklahoma officials approved an application by the state’s Catholic Archdiocese to open the nation’s first ever taxpayer-funded religious charter school. While Oklahoma, like most states, mandates that charters must be nonsectarian to receive public funds, proponents argue that SCOTUS has essentially nullified that requirement. Like the vast majority of charter schools, St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School will operate free of a union contract. Instead, employees will be subject to the tenets of the Catholic Church. That means a strict dress code based on gender norms, no homosexual acts, health benefits reserved for opposite sex partners, and the understanding that employees who are found to be “publicly living a life inconsistent” with Catholic teachings can be fired, as one board member explained. While public and charter schools cannot engage in discrimination against employees because they are publicly funded, St. Isidore will discriminate by design.

By defining all of its employees, from the math teacher to the janitor, as “ministers,” the school exempts them from civil rights and labor protections. Thanks to what’s known as the ministerial exception, defined increasingly aggressively by SCOTUS, “ministers” employed by religious groups get no protection at all from state and federal employment laws. They can be fired at any time, for any reason, including pregnancy, sexual activity, or political views.

As a recent Politico investigation revealed, conservative legal activists are hoping to use the school as a Supreme Court test case, not just to evangelize on behalf of religious charter schools but to undermine the entire separation between church and state. Should the school survive various legal challenges in Oklahoma, other states will no doubt rush to fund their own religious “public” schools. These activists are attempting to take the premise that teachers teach best when freed from red tape and union bureaucracy to its logical conclusion, i.e., giving teachers no rights at all.

Teacher Proofing

Today, the right casts its case for an education overhaul in language that is both apocalyptic and apocryphal. “The hard Left has completely captured the classroom,” warned Fox News commentator Pete Hegseth in a bestselling 2022 book, Battle for the American Mind. “Marxist teachers colleges pump out ideological teachers, left-wing teachers unions reign supreme, PTAs are neutered, school boards scared fully ‘woke.’”

The argument that kids do better when their teachers have fewer rights and protections remains the mainstream Democratic view.

Absent from this bleak vision is any talk of “fixing” teachers or replacing them with better ones. A thoroughly bipartisan cause just a decade ago, the case for making teaching more selective has gotten harder to make at a time when departures are spiking and shortages deepening. Teach for America, a program that sends grads of top colleges into urban classrooms for two-year stints, then encourages them to move into policy circles, has long been criticized by the left as a tool of school privatization. Now, the right views the corps members’ Ivy League credentials with increasing hostility. A top GOP policy priority these days is the creation of huge voucher programs that can fund private religious schools and home schools that don’t require licensed teachers or even college degrees. “Microschools,” another red state trend, in which small clusters of students learn online, don’t employ teachers at all but minimum-wage “guides” who are able to pass a background check.

Take North Carolina, which is grappling with an exodus of teachers—nearly fifteen thousand left the classroom between 2021 and 2022—and a shortage of replacements. Education officials there spent the last year flogging a complex and controversial merit-pay system that would have tethered salaries and licenses even more tightly to student test scores, rewarding the “best” teachers and culling those with the weakest-performing students. It’s the sort of scheme that would have rallied bipartisan support just a few years ago, but this time the effort failed, in part because GOP legislators didn’t want to spend more money. Conservative lawmakers, meanwhile, successfully pushed for a universal voucher scheme that now enables every student to attend private religious schools at taxpayers’ expense. Students at these schools don’t take state-mandated tests; their teachers aren’t required to be licensed at all.

“You’ve got the neoliberal desire to crack the code on getting better academic outcomes without raising wages, but you’ve also got a legislature that’s bent on destroying public education,” says Justin Parmenter, an English teacher in Charlotte. “The result is that the public is now paying for religious schools that are advertising for teachers, saying you don’t need a license to teach here, but you need to be able to speak in tongues.”

Policymakers are also increasingly adopting an “any warm body will do” approach, loosening licensing requirements in an effort to enlarge the labor pool. A dozen states have weakened certification requirements, including creating entryways into the classroom that no longer require a college degree. In Arkansas, for instance, the sweeping and controversial education overhaul known as the LEARNS Act was signed into law by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders last March. Struggling districts could now be taken over by charter school management companies, as was the tiny school district in the Arkansas Delta known as Marvell-Elaine. After a four-day bidding process with few takers, the 230-student district had a new boss, the D.C.-based Friendship Education Foundation, which was already operating three Arkansas schools. Two of them were faring little better than Marvell-Elaine, the district the Foundation has been tasked with turning around.

Marvell-Elaine’s local elected school board was disbanded and the existing employees fired—or, in the parlance of school reform, offered the opportunity to reapply for their jobs, albeit without a union. That a district that has chronically struggled to attract and hold onto teachers started its makeover by getting rid of the ones it already had was an irony not lost on critics of the move. It is in places like Marvell-Elaine—rural, poor, with an overwhelmingly Black student body—where Arkansas’s teacher shortage is most concentrated. “Here you have one of the poorest counties in the country, with schools that have the least resources,” says Michad Holliday, an Arkansas teacher who is making a documentary about Marvell-Elaine as part of his graduate research. “The teachers were already stressed and underpaid. So where are you going to find all of these new teachers?”

By December, Friendship was appealing to the state to release it from the requirements that govern public schools in Arkansas, including that students be taught by licensed educators. The state quickly granted the request. “This is a prime example of how you take away opportunity, quality and oversight,” says Holliday.

“The response to these discussions about teacher shortages on a state and national level has not been, ‘hey, let’s pay teachers more,’” says Andrew Kirk, a teacher and union activist in Dallas. “Instead, we’re waiving the requirements that govern who can teach. Essentially we’re de-skilling teaching so that we can produce more teachers.”

Enlarging the labor pool as a response to the shortage of teachers also drives wages down, even as low pay continues to be the single largest factor driving teachers out of the classroom. In Texas, for example, where the shortage of teachers dates back decades, a recent study found that the reduction of licensing requirements beginning in 2001 led to reduced wages for elementary school teachers for the next twenty years.

But making teaching a job that anyone can do also requires changing the nature of the profession, including placing strict limits on teacher autonomy. Delivering scripted lessons that are timed down to the moment requires little professional judgment. Indeed, the goal of such reforms is to “teacher proof” the classroom. Prohibitions on discussing racism or gender identity function in a similar way, reminding teachers to stick to the script, or else. The overall impact of such policies ends up making teaching more like assembly line work, argues Kirk. “These are labor issues as much as they are pedagogical issues.”

The result is a vicious circle, in which the degradation of the occupation leads teachers to flee, while policy makers and legislators degrade the job further in order to fill the resulting vacancies. Meanwhile, the unions that advocate for higher pay and better working conditions, the sorts of improvements that would keep teachers working, grow steadily weaker. A decade before Texas took over the Houston schools, a similar experiment, helmed by the same school turnaround artist, played out in Dallas. While standardized test scores stayed stagnant or declined during the three years of Mike Miles’s tenure in Dallas, teacher turnover nearly doubled. As brand new teachers replaced resigning veterans with decades of experience, the spike in departures ushered in a decline in the local teachers union from which it has never recovered. Kirk estimates that prior to the takeover, Alliance/AFT, which represents school employees across the district, had ten thousand members—an impressive number in a state where less than 5 percent of workers belong to a union. Today, the union is less than half that size.

Schoolhouse Rock

Last year, the Center for Working-Class Politics released a report on how progressive candidates can win back voters without college degrees, the sort of voters that the party has been hemorrhaging in one election cycle after another. In their polling, hypothetical candidates were pitted against one another in order to test the relative appeal of various kinds of candidates, messages, and policies.

The candidate who attracted the most support was a female middle school teacher. She proved better able to lure back disaffected voters than candidates with more traditional working-class backgrounds—warehouse workers and construction laborers—and positively thrashed the hypothetical lawyers and corporate executives, who repelled voters.

Privatization has essentially cleared the way for legal activists to impose their conservative Christian social vision upon formerly public institutions.

That the Democrats’ best hope could turn out to be exactly the unionized teachers that party elites have spent decades undercutting feels bitterly ironic. The bipartisan project of enfeebling unions, after all, has been devastating to virtually every aspect of the Democrats’ electoral operation. As an oft-cited 2018 study found, as unions grow weaker, fewer working-class candidates run for office, and state policy climates end up shifting to the right, guaranteeing that unions will grow weaker still. Of course, that was the goal, as teachers and public employees in Wisconsin, who were stripped of their collective bargaining rights by then Governor Scott Walker in 2011, well understood. Yet their urgent appeals to the nation’s top Democrat at that time, Barack Obama, went nowhere. He skipped the protests to join Jeb Bush in Florida to kick off “education month” and promote a shared policy priority: making it easier to fire teachers.

It’s all but impossible to imagine Joe Biden making such a choice today. After all, labor unions are enjoying their highest levels of support since the 1960s, sympathy that largely extends to teachers’ unions. Yet the Democratic donor class remains resolutely committed to the decades-long project of weakening the influence of teachers, even if it means largely abandoning public education in the process. “American public education is broken,” declared Michael Bloomberg in 2021, announcing that he was gifting $750 million, one of the single largest education donations in history, to fund the expansion of non-union charter schools in urban areas.

Meanwhile, the Republicans’ sharp right turn on education has created an opening for the Democrats. The GOP’s embrace of “parents’ rights” has not produced the hoped-for winners at the polls heralded by Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory in Virginia in 2021. Instead, their incendiary rhetoric has fallen flat with voters. The incessant focus on “woke” teachers, trans students, and fictitious litter boxes for kids who identify as “furries” has repelled the disaffected voters who fled Trump’s GOP, helping to fuel Democratic victories at the state and local level.

If party elites comprehend this opportunity, they are showing few signs of it. Democrats seem consigned to playing perpetual defense in the culture war. And as Biden’s charter support shows, they haven’t articulated any fresh thinking on education. But answers for both saving our education system and success at the polls may not be so novel. Teachers are departing the profession in droves because the Democrats have ridden sidecar for forty years with the right. Make a case, however old-fashioned, not only for union protections, classroom autonomy, and living wages, but for public education itself as a national good, and perhaps you’d convince them to stay.