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How Teachers Think
A Midwestern reader writes:
You are one of the few conservative-leaning authors out there that seem to really understand what that world is about. Before a career in corporate management, followed by a return to B-school and a third career in academics, I did a stint as a teacher in a public elementary school.
Although they will not generally say so publicly, every reasonably aware public-school teacher knows the operative rules. Urban teaching jobs suck, rural jobs suck a little less, and the suburban jobs in prosperous areas are where you want to work. In prosperous areas the patrons usually love the schools their kids attend and they like the teachers and administrators. There really are schools out there with little dysfunction, low levels of violence, and where kids really do learn something.
This is why I find it ironic that many conservatives lump the entire structure together and make [public] education the enemy. The advocated solutions seem to involve some form of economic starvation combined with higher (and universal) performance standards, and additional requirements to track and report performance data. This while complaining about the greater number of administrators required to meet these mandates. I think conservatives are making a huge mistake here. It's analogous to the phenomenon of everyone professing to hate congress while reelecting the same congressman they have had for 30 years. They like their congressman, its all the others that they hate.
It might also be important to note that every state is not like New York, Wisconsin, or California. Not every teacher is a communist, lazy, a union member, or possessor of a gigantic pension. There is real risk, especially in more conservative states, of alienating people that are in these professions but generally conservative. I tell this to my state legislators all time time, but they ignore me.
One thing I try to do is to look at political issues in the news partly from the perspective of property values in my neighborhood. From this angle, the GOP's Randian maker v. taker rhetoric seems strange. Granted, my approach of being sympathetic toward people who would make good neighbors (while being hard-headed about who would make good neighbors) is totally orthogonal to all standard ideologies, but I think the emotion is widely shared if seldom articulated.
If schoolteachers, firemen, cops, or civil servant bureaucrats move into your neighborhood, is that good for your property values or bad? For all but the top 10% or 20% richest neighborhoods, government employees are fairly desirable neighbors: law-abiding, had to pass some kind of test to get their jobs, stably employed, usually there for the long term, don't work too many hours so they can coach kid teams at the park, and so forth. (I'm just repeating basic Chicago real estate logic.)
In other words, government employees tend to be one core element of the "small c" conservative American middle class.
Moreover, these are people who tend to have influence with their neighbors and with your children. Teachers talk to children all day long. And they have some influence on other adults in part because they tend to be articulate and outgoing, plus they often have taught people who now vote. Similarly, neighbors who are firemen and cops are listened to at backyard barbecues with some respect and interest because their jobs entail bravery and their jobs make for interesting stories. Even government office paper shufflers can help their neighbors navigate the bureaucracy.
So, Republicans, why demonize them? Republican budget cutters have very legitimate gripes -- firemen and cops have often abused the pension system, for example, with various tricks, and most cities probably employ more firemen than they need -- but the GOP ought to look for carrots as well as sticks. Stand up for government employees against abuse by affirmative action, for instance.
Little stuff, too: back during Hurricane Katrina, my son's scoutmaster, a fire chief, dropped everything and flew to Louisiana to help rescue people in New Orleans. But before he could be allowed into the field to save lives, he had to sit through a two hour seminar on sexual harassment!
Sure, the Republicans aren't going to win over many votes from members of government employees unions. But, you might win over, say, their in-laws if you treat them fairly on what ought to be Republican issues. But, instead, the GOP has largely given up on Reagan Democrat issues in favor of, say, talking about the estate tax.
Indeed, the Bush Administration went the other way and attacked Reagan Democrats. Alberto Gonalez filed in 2007 a discrimination lawsuit against the Fire Department of New York -- of whom 343 died on 9/11 and who are among the more culturally conservative bloc of voters in the state of New York. Thanks, GOP! I'm sure McCain and Romney did much better among Hispanics and blacks in New York because of this, right?
The new official GOP report on how the party will revive echoes the conventional wisdom of such GOP-friendly institutions as the editorial board of the New York Times: Hispanics! But, if you actually look at the Electoral College map, it's clear that the GOP's biggest Presidential election problem is not appealing enough to whites in the North Central states.