I’ve always believed that we should treat our public-school teachers the same way we treat brain surgeons. Our best teachers, like our best brain surgeons, should become wealthy and respected leaders in our community. Our worst teachers, like our worst brain surgeons, should be encouraged to change careers before they cause too much damage.
So I am somewhat conflicted when I think about teachers’ unions. On one hand, the unions’ members perform the most important job imaginable: they are entrusted with the intellectual development of our children. I’ve taught at the university level for 25 years and am well aware of how much easier my job is because of the skill, the patience and the commitment that elementary- and secondary-school teachers devote to their students. Every day, I am grateful for the exemplary work they do to prepare our next generation of leaders for success.
But at the same time, I am also frustrated by the determination with which their union representatives fight the removal of the worst teachers from the classroom. The harm that a bad teacher can do to a young brain is not as immediate as that of a bad brain surgeon, but the long-term impact of their malpractice is just as profound. I am also disturbed by the ferocity with which unions have battled against charter schools, the public-school alternative for children in minority and other under-represented communities. And it puzzles me when teacher unions choose to engage on non-educational issues on which they have no background or training. Or shame.
San Francisco’s school board is the national leader in this silliness sweepstakes, a designation they re-earned earlier this year when they voted to remove the names of 44 political leaders and other historical figures from public schools because of their ostensible connection to slavery or other race-based oppression. (Fortunately, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Dianne Feinstein and others were temporarily spared after the board suspended their deliberations until the city’s schools are re-opened.)
Undeterred, San Francisco’s educators once again wandered away from their primary responsibility of educating their city’s schoolchildren last month, when their union leaders voted to endorse a boycott of Israel, accused the Jewish state of “apartheid” and “war crimes,” and called for the United States to stop providing aid to Israel.
The Los Angeles teachers’ union has now begun to move in the same direction, as two of their regional chapters recently passed a similar resolution, setting the stage for a full union leadership vote this fall. United Teachers Los Angeles will then decide whether to condemn Israel for defending itself against terrorist attacks. (This last sentence represents my own wording rather than the union’s, although they do manage to include references to “solidarity with the Palestinian people,” “bombardment of Gaza” and “the international campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against apartheid in Israel” in their messaging.)
Almost anyone reading this column can recite from memory the familiar corrections to these misplaced charges. Hamas began firing rockets into Israel prior to any Israeli military action directed toward Gaza. Palestinian leaders regularly call for the elimination of Israel, provide their schoolchildren with maps of the region that do not recognize Israel’s existence and offer financial rewards to the families of terrorists who have committed murder against Israeli citizens. Etc., etc., etc.
But even more troubling than UTLA’s delusions about how to bring peace to the Middle East is the selectivity of their outrage. Their foray into international geopolitics includes no mention of China, which perpetuates a modern-day genocide against Muslim minorities in their country. Not a word about Belarus, where that country’s dictator recently hijacked an international flight to arrest and imprison a journalist who has criticized his government. Human rights atrocities in North Korea, Iran, Syria, Venezuela and too many other nations to list here also go unmentioned. Israel alone is singled out for censure.
As public schools have reopened across the country in both red and blue states with negligible Covid spread, Los Angeles school children continue to suffer from extended learning loss, increasing educational inequity, and skyrocketing mental health and behavioral issues that accompany continued distance learning. Last year, UTLA announced that public schools here should only be reopened if the government also defunds the police, passes Medicare for All and imposes a wealth tax on California residents. At the time, they somehow overlooked the elimination of a Jewish homeland. But that was an oversight that they may soon attempt to rectify.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.