March 13, 2003

Unions play, children pay

By: James Kirchick

If the charges are true–and one accused conspirator already has pleaded guilty and promised to testify against the others–the leadership of the Washington Teachers Union hasn’t been looking out for its members in recent years–let alone the students those members serve.

Leaders of the WTU, which represents teachers in the District of Columbia school system, stand accused of spending more than $2 million in union dues for antiques, tailor-made clothing, jewelry, art and expensive home furnishings. Evidence of criminal behavior surfaced last fall when teachers complained of unexplained jumps in their union dues. The union also failed to deliver key services to its members.

And it’s not as if the system was functioning well enough to do without their help. At only one high school in the nation’s capital do 50 percent of its students score “proficient” in reading, and at no school do 50 percent score “proficient” or better in math.

But it doesn’t end there. The National Education Association (NEA), one of the two major umbrella organizations for teachers’ unions (the American Federation of Teachers is the other), found itself in hot water last spring for allegedly illegally concealing the use of millions of dollars in tax-exempt union dues for political activities, according to a complaint filed by the Washington-based Landmark Legal Foundation.

The unions spent the overwhelming majority of their money to back Democratic candidates and policies. But the candidates and policies they backed are not the issue. The issue is that teachers are forced in many cases to join their local union, and their dues are, for the most part, spent in their names without regard to whether they support the candidates and policies that receive the funds.

But this is not a story about how union members’ funds were abused, compelling as that tale may be. This is a story about huge, prominent organizations sowing the seeds of their own destruction by neglecting their mission in the name of a self-serving, cynical political agenda they can enact only through the back door because society never would allow it otherwise.

The moral relativism that informs their views on the meaning of the Sept. 11 attacks, on sex education, on homosexuality and on the place of God in the classroom would not win the support of a majority of concerned parents in any school district in America. To put forth such views, neglect the job at hand–which is to educate America’s students–and then to attempt to forbid parents to opt out of such a system is not only the height of arrogance, it’s the root of what may lead to the unions’ downfall if they don’t change their ways.

Parents want their children to receive a top-notch education from teachers whose values, more or less, reflect their own. This isn’t happening now, and everyone knows it. What is happening, in too many cases, is a 6-hour-per-day spin session programmed by the radical left for their handmaidens in the union.

For instance, teachers correctly identified Sept. 11 as what those familiar with edu-speak call “a teachable moment.” But to teach what?

That America’s place in the world as a powerful nation that seeks freedom for all people sometimes makes it vulnerable to attacks by fanatics who would kill before they compromise, terrorize before they tolerate, and enslave before they would enlighten? To be fair, this was the message many teachers carried to their classrooms. They used the incident to teach their students about the politics of the Middle East, the weakness that totalitarianism and rule by terror visits on societies, and the value of freedom as we know it and hold it dear.

For too many others, however, this was not the case. The NEA cautioned teachers not even to affix blame for the attacks. All things are equal. This was a big misunderstanding. Their worldview–which permits no dissent, grants animals more rights than women and insists that all must follow its abhorrent moral code–has equal validity to that of our society, which was founded on tolerance for dissent, rights for all, and freedom of religion.

Again, if–as teachers piously claim–the students always come first, why not teach them the advantages of America’s approach? It’s not about affixing or denying blame. It’s about showing that the free society we enjoy here encourages women to excel as well as men, encourages innovation by tapping into the creative energy unleashed by capitalism, and that freedom of religion and freedom to seek redress of differences with our government make our country cleaner, more prosperous, better educated, and more attractive in a thousand other ways than any country ruled by the Islamic extremists so admired by Osama bin Laden and his ilk. There’s a story to tell here, and it’s not that everything is relative and every society is equal.

There’s a story for teachers to tell about sex education, and it’s also not the one they’re telling. The unions crusade against teaching abstinence in public schools. In New Jersey, the union convention canceled a sex-ed workshop when it learned that all three presenters–all respected physicians–advocated teaching kids to wait until marriage to engage in sexual activity.

Yet, this is what 90 percent of American adults say schools ought to teach youngsters about sex. This is, in large part, why the number of teens who say they’ve had sex before they graduate from high school has declined from 56 percent to 44 percent in the last 10 years. It’s why one of the hottest trends among teens these days is taking pledges to avoid sex until marriage.

Unfortunately, it’s not what we get from teachers’ unions. What we get from the NEA is something called the “Health Information Network.” The “network” dispenses advice about sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, sexual health, contraception and breast and cervical cancer. Urging abstinence works. Why provide how-to information to teens who are then left to assume the adults in their lives want them to have sex, or at the very least are indifferent to the issue?

And how many parents truly want teachers promoting homosexual lifestyles and urging that any student who doesn’t support this agenda be punished for “hate crimes?” That’s just one thing the NEA called for in its 2000-2001 annual resolution. It also called for more cultural diversity, more sex ed and more environmentalism. Teachers are free to think what they want. They are free to mention sexual orientation 19 times in their resolution and reading only six. But parents–their customers–don’t care what they think on these issues. Parents want their children to learn, and given the deplorable record of academic achievement by so many students, it’s obvious increased focus on the three R’s makes more sense than support for homosexual lifestyles.

And that’s why the school choice movement continues to grow in leaps and bounds. Today, 38 states and the District of Columbia permit charter schools–public schools, open to all students, freed of much of the red tape that beleaguers regular schools but held to high standards for academic achievement. And it’s why the voucher movement–bolstered by a favorable Supreme Court ruling on a challenge to vouchers in Cleveland–also continues to gain ground.

America has seen the vision of its future shared by the NEA and the AFT, and it doesn’t like it. If teachers want to cool the school-choice movement, they need to reclaim their unions, redirect their energies to doing the jobs they were hired to do, and resign from the political advocacy business.

Parents would prefer to drop off their children at the neighborhood school and drive away confident those children will emerge educated by teachers with values that resemble their own. And most public-school teachers are like most Americans when it comes to what they hold dear and why. But we don’t see them when we look at education.

We see the NEA Web site advocating teen sex. We see calls for “understanding” with regard to those who attacked us on Sept. 11. We see emphasis on everything but the hard work of teaching students what they need to know to function in today’s society.

The D.C. teacher’s union scandal doesn’t help. But it does serve as an example of the hubris, the arrogance that surrounds much of the teacher’s union movement in America today. And if that arrogance doesn’t get checked, and educators don’t get back to the business of educating, the teacher’s unions might find themselves with far fewer members and much less influence.

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