By John McClaughry
The National Education Association’s assembly has passed two startling resolutions to push the union’s ideology of racial justice and equity, anti-capitalism, and white oppression into the public school classroom. The “remedy” of concerned citizens regaining control of curriculums only rarely succeeds. A better solution: let objecting parents send their children to independent schools, taking a large fraction of their public school equalized per pupil cost of education with them.
There was a time, 50 years ago, when many teachers, superintendents and academics belonged to their professional group, founded as the Vermont Teachers Association in 1850. For many years public school teachers — mostly women — usually had the respect of the community but barely enough salary to pay their bills. So in 1969 education activists persuaded a Republican legislature and governor to enact a collective bargaining law. In 1979 the rechristened Vermont-National Education Association emerged as a labor union of predominantly teachers and school support staff members bargaining with local school districts for better salaries and benefits, which admittedly were overdue and beneficial to the state as a whole.
Today, the democratically-governed VT-NEA labor union represents over 12,000 members organized in almost all local school districts. It can fairly claim to be a leading advocate for the education of Vermont’s children.
Given that, and at the risk of oversimplification, the union’s traditional agenda can be summarized as compulsory membership, more teachers in smaller classes, higher pay, more generous benefits, more workplace control, resisting independent accountability for results, restricting parental choice and suppressing competition from non-unionized independent schools. (State law does not allow compulsory membership, and since 2018, a U.S. Supreme Court case has prohibited “agency fee” assessments on teachers who decline to join the union.)
Understandably, teachers unions have worked for years to shape education policy by controlling state legislatures. That’s notably true in Vermont, where the VT-NEA essentially owns the Democratic Party on matters of interest to the union. It has also enlisted the support of a wide range of organizations by supporting progressive causes, like private sector unionization, battling climate change, expanding gun control, and adopting single payer health care (for everybody else).
One may disagree with the union’s positions, but it has every right to work to advance the interests of its members. But here’s the startling news, reported in a July 8 Wall Street Journal editorial (“The Teachers Unions Go Woke”). Says the editorial, “the national teachers unions are adopting woke values and pressing them into K-12 curriculums across the U.S.”
As an example, “the NEA held its annual meeting last week and the measures approved by delegates deserve broader attention. One calls for the union to support and lead campaigns that ‘result in increasing the implementation of culturally responsive education, critical race theory and ethnic (Native people, Asian, Black, Latin (o/a/x), Middle Eastern, North African, and Pacific Islander) Studies curriculum in pre-K-12 and higher education.’ … [This ideology] teaches that a person is defined above all else by race, gender and sexual orientation, and that American institutions are designed to ensure white supremacy and ‘the patriarchy.’
“Another delegate-approved measure calls for the union to issue a study criticizing ‘empire, white supremacy, anti-blackness, anti-Indigeneity, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society.’”
The Journal concludes that “no one is opposed to teaching about America’s difficult racial history, including the evils of slavery and Jim Crow. What parents are awakening to is that their children are being told the lie that America has made little or no racial progress and therefore its legal, economic and political systems must be turned upside down. … Parents have a every right, even a duty, to fight back against this invasion of progressive politics in their schools.”
I daresay that many of VT-NEA’s teacher members are not supportive of their national union’s march down this ideological path. But where it does appear in our public schools, what is the remedy for parents and citizens who disagree?
“Fighting back” to recapture the public school curriculum is an exhausting process, largely dependent on overmatched citizen volunteers. A better remedy is for the legislature to give parents who don’t want their children fed such ideology in their classrooms the right to choose other avenues for their children’s education, taking with them a sizable portion of the equalized per pupil cost of education in the local public school system.
Independent schools that offer a more balanced curriculum, including curricula built upon moral and religious values, will attract empowered parents and children. Public schools that lose pupils because of radical indoctrination will seek to regain their market share (and lost union dues) by making their offerings more appealing.
Some activists, committed to a government-enforced public school monopoly and infused with the new radicalism promoted by the NEA, will find this a terrifying prospect. As for others — teachers, parents and citizens who seek to preserve what is good about America and essential for the success of its young people — what’s not to like?
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.