McCain attacks teachers’ unions

by Leo Casey

John McCain

In his speech last week to the national convention of the American Federation of Teachers, Barack Obama was clear and unequivocal in his opposition to using public money for vouchers for private schools. At that time, Obama made it clear that he supported public school choice — the ability of students and their families to chose which public school they would attend. In taking this stance, Obama reiterated what is a longstanding position of his — he had made the same point to the National Education Association convention earlier in July, and had explicitly disowned attempts by pro-voucher partisans to spin comments he made in a primary campaign interview into support for private school vouchers. Today, John McCain chose the occasion of a speech to the august civil rights organization, the NAACP, to take on Obama — and teacher unions — on this very point.

McCain said:

In remarks to the American Federation of Teachers last weekend, Senator Obama dismissed public support for private school vouchers for low-income Americans as, “tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice.” All of that went over well with the teachers union, but where does it leave families and their children who are stuck in failing schools?

Over the years, Americans have heard a lot of “tired rhetoric” about education. We’ve heard it in the endless excuses of people who seem more concerned about their own position than about our children. We’ve heard it from politicians who accept the status quo rather than stand up for real change in our public schools. Parents ask only for schools that are safe, teachers who are competent, and diplomas that open doors of opportunity. When a public system fails, repeatedly, to meet these minimal objectives, parents ask only for a choice in the education of their children. Some parents may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private school. Many will choose a charter school. No entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity.

Let us leave to the side McCain’s intellectually dishonest attempt to wrap the issue of private school vouchers in the mantle of public school choice: there are, of course, very sound policy reasons why Obama, the NAACP and teacher unions all draw a vital distinction between private school vouchers and public school choice, opposing the former and supporting the latter. But the real political import of McCain’s statement lies elsewhere — it is an attempt to force a political wedge between Obama and teacher unions, based on the raw power calculus that an Obama campaign without vigorous teacher and union support would be a far more vulnerable opponent. To accomplish this goal, McCain has returned to the old Republican Dole and D’Amato playbook of attacking teacher unions. In an American trade union movement that has been decimated in recent decades, teacher unions stand out as a powerful exception, with most of the K-12 educational sector organized in either the NEA or the AFT. It is teacher unions that stand between the Republican right and the privatization of public education and the further dismantling of American public life. Like his predecessors, McCain understands this political reality. Teachers and unionists need to understand it as well, and organize for this election in a way that send a message every bit as powerful as the crushing defeats of Dole and D’Amato.

Leo Casey  blogs on Edwize. The Blog of the New York AFT. He is Vice President, Academic High Schools of the United Federation of Teachers.

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