Social movements such as women’s suffrage, black civil rights, and parental choice in education involve the redistribution of social, political, and economic power. Because few groups in control of that power at the time are enlightened enough to share it voluntarily, these power struggles are usually contentious—but they don’t have to be.
Although school choice opponents have used name-calling, character assassination, and misinformation as key strategies in maintaining their power, thankfully they have refrained from the physical violence that often accompanies disruptive social change. The bad news is their strategies still undermine our civic discourse and make it more difficult to provide every child with an equal opportunity to succeed. Our children and our democracy deserve better.
Despite the opposition’s tact, school choice supporters should try engaging opponents, particularly teachers’ unions. I know that is easier said than done, but, in the long run, the willingness to search for common ground could accelerate the transition to greater school choice. I say this as someone who’s had a front-row seat on both sides of this debate.
I became a teachers’ union organizer in 1978, and, for the next 16 years, held a variety of local, state, and national leadership positions in both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). Today, I am president of a nonprofit organization that helps administer our nation’s largest private school choice program.
Although neither side is without sin, I have been most disappointed by the discourse coming from the teachers’ unions and their anti-choice allies. When I talk with local, state, and national union leaders, I am stunned at how uninformed they are and how many falsehoods they have embraced as truths.
I recently had dinner with one of our country’s top teachers’ union leaders who told me there has never been research showing students benefit from school choice programs. And last month, I was on a panel with a top Miami-Dade union leader who erroneously said Florida’s tax credit students are not tested.
This level of ignorance is a reflection of how insular, polarized, and tribal our politics have become. People are increasingly retreating into self-contained echo chambers where they hear only the messages that reflect the positions of their political tribe. Without access to contrary views from sources they know and trust, people have no basis upon which to question the one-sided communications they are receiving. And few organizations are as insular and tribal as teachers’ unions.
Such insularity causes many union leaders to develop a mindset that says their positions are good and all contrary positions, and those who hold them, are evil—hence all the rhetoric coming from teachers’ union leaders.
There are also financial incentives at play. Continue Reading →