Labor’s dilemma on Education Secretary

Everybody’s getting into the act, setting forth what may be growing dispute between reformers and teachers’ unions on who will get the Education Secretary nod (and by extension, what the Obama Administration’s education policy will be like). Follow Eduwonk’s links and you can see for yourself how the controversy seems to be playing out.

But there is an interesting voice missing here: organized labor.

You might say that labor’s voice isn’t “missing” because it is so obvious where it will side: with the NEA and the AFT, teachers’ unions that have consistently fought any accountability measures for education and seem to deny that teachers can have any role in improving the academic achievement of low-income children.

Perhaps that’s right: and if so, it shows that conservatives are right about the intellectual corruption of the labor movement.

Whose children are actually attending the public schools in low performing urban school districts? Low-wage workers, most in service industries, tens of thousands of them Latino–precisely the population that labor wants to organize in a globalized world. (In Los Angeles, a new big push is in organizing car wash workers, jobs that can’t be sent overseas.). Service workers do not make a lot of money, are often concentrated in urban areas, and are dependent upon the public schools for their children to advance economically.

Whenever teachers’ unions insist that they cannot be held accountable for anything, that there is nothing that schools can do, and that any measures to increase performance represent some sort of right-wing conspiracy, they are, in effect, undermining other sectors of the labor movement. Other unions are soon going to be faced with a choice: support the NEA, or support their workers. Which way they go will tell us a lot about the future role of labor in building a strong progressive movement.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.