August 18, 2015

Why are K-12 anti-tenure people anti-tenure?

After the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 affirmed that separate but equal schooling was a fallacy, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was signed into law, guaranteeing federal funding to schools and school districts to help offset the damage that had been done through generations of segregation.
From almost the moment that law was signed, states undertook legal action to deny, dismiss, and de-couple themselves from any de-segregation efforts.

Between 1965 and 2007, dozens of suits were filed by states on behalf of school districts claiming they really did not have to undertake any actions (like having a busing plan, hiring plans, student placement plans) that would make a unified, integrated schooling system. Cases arguing that states faced an undue burden in trying to rectify segregation in schooling, from Alabama, North Carolina, Colorado, Virginia, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma and Georgia, were heard by the U. S. Supreme Court; the states claimed that the work of creating equity in schooling was both an undue financial burden, and that the federal government was too intrusive in its assessments of integration plans. States claimed, generally, that the regulation of their actions (and demand for change, subsidized by the federal government) was unfair, and the punishment (withholding federal funds) for failure to integrate was also unfair. At core was the argument that the way schooling had been (racially segregated, state-defined and underfunded) until Brown v. Board of Education was acceptable.

In the late 1990’s, anti-choice activists developed a new approach in their fight against abortion and access to abortion: they started a push to change the state laws that regulated clinics and the requirements placed on doctors that performed abortions. Before Roe v Wade resulted in the decriminalization of abortion, no “official” abortion clinics existed. After the procedure was legalized, medical schools provided training, Planned Parenthood provided safe clinics, and the dilation and curettage process became as regulated as any other minor non-invasive process – and we have now even developed a pill that stops an early pregnancy from progressing. But the anti-choice approach to using over-regulation as a financial impediment to clinics and doctors has been effective in closing clinics, and, in a sense, driving women to less safe alternatives. At core is the argument that the way abortion had been until Roe v. Wade (criminalized, unseen and unsafe) was and is acceptable.

The anti-tenure “movement” got a huge push from the Vergara v. California decision in 2014, where the state found for the anti-tenure group, agreeing with their argument that state laws regulating tenure (defining the probationary period as 2 years, guaranteeing teacher rights in dismissal actions, protecting teacher seniority in layoffs, etc.) actually hurt students by denying them “good” teachers and leaving them stuck with teachers who were hard to get rid of.

How does this connect to Brown v. Board, or Roe v Wade? One direct link is this: those who think tenure in K-12 education is inherently negative are pushing an argument that the way teaching should be done should be more like business, and having all teachers as at-will employees (untrained, non-unionized and always replaceable) is acceptable.

Another connecting point is in how these issues are defined by those who wish to undue certain protections (racial equity in schooling, a woman’s right to privacy, a teachers’ civil and civic rights) as those definitions are, inherently, directly beneficial to those who are not in the class seeking protection

Put another way, the states arguing they should not have to provide equitable education are not represented by the class seeking protection (victims of the impacts of segregation) but rather the privileged class denying the need for protection. Similarly, the anti-choice activists pushing for more clinic regulation are not members of the class seeking protection (doctors, clinic workers, patients) from the undue burden of regulation, they are rather the privileged class denying the burden exists. 

And the anti-tenure “movement,” led as it is by David Welch and Eli Broad (the two multimillionaire entrepreneurs and proponents of school privatization who brought the Vergara suit) is at core an anti-union action, layered in language about students’ rights, interpreted by the court as an issue of state laws that regulate a unionized profession as being unconstitutional – as being unnecessary as a form of protection to a class (teachers) because the court denied that class deserved protection.

When the argument descends into what tenure is, whether abortion is “right” or how groups should be responsible for educating themselves, the privileged group pushing the denial of protection or the denial of burden wins. When you engage with a non-educator about what tenure is, and means, as one of the only forms of employment protection in a deeply de-professionalized, majority female profession in the United States, and they respond dismissively about the very idea of tenure, you are speaking with someone who does not recognize others’ humanity in a very specific, legal way.

They aren’t just talking about something they don’t know about, they are talking about the denial of protections and the denial of the existence of burdens in the same way anti-integrationists and anti-choicers pushing for clinic regulation do. They will argue a specific case (a “bad” teacher, the movie Waiting for Superman, a “good” charter school they know staffed with Teach For America trainees, how what we need now is more of a focus on grit, etc. etc.) as a means to this de-humanizing end. The more they stay in specificity, the quicker they get the argument away from the broad, demoralizing purpose.

Who does eliminating tenure serve? The question should be, who does removing unions and workplace protections serve? Who does removing regulation about de-segregation efforts serve? Who does denying reproductive health care to women serve? And if the answer is, it serves none of the people in those classes, none of those people coping with those burdens, then you know the argument itself is about denying something very essential: that others’ experiences, needs, skills, professions, lives, decisions, and most of all rights matter as much as their own.