Why Do Liberals Hate Tenure? Remembering John Lindsay, Liberals and the 1968 Strike.

“…there is seldom room for talent or honesty; everything is obtained through intrigue or luck, not to mention money, which seems to hold supreme sway over the world … inadequate men hold the highest [offices], discreet and learned men being left out in the cold whilst ignorant and worthless persons are exalted.” Poggio Bracciolini, in Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, 2011.

No, Poggio Bracciolini was not talking about the Congress, or the state legislature or departments of education, he was talking about the papal curia in the early 14th century, the more things change…

Why does David Boies, a lifelong liberal, who led the legal team that overturned the California same-sex marriage ban, who represented Al Gore before the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, who prosecuted Microsoft, chair the Campbell Brown organization that is challenging tenure laws around the country? Boies, 73, the son of two school teachers, in a NY Times interview” …said he viewed the cause of tenure overhaul as ‘pro-teacher.’ “

“I think teaching is one of the most important professions that we have in this country,” he said. But, he added, “there can be a tension” between union efforts to protect workers and “what society needs to do, which is to make sure that the social function — in this case teaching — is being fulfilled.” Mr. Boies, who said he viewed education as a civil rights issue, is offering his services pro bono.”

From one of the most respected liberal lawyers in the nation to a long-time liberal comedienne, and co-host of the widely watched The View,

On the entertainment side, Whoopi Goldberg, the co-host of The View, with decidedly liberal views on politics, supported the attacks on tenure,

On Monday, the co-host insisted that bad teachers should lose their job, declaring, “You teachers in your unions, you need to say, ‘these bad teachers are making us look bad. We don’t want it!”…And it has nothing to do with being a liberal or a Democrat. It has to do with being an American.”

On Tuesday, the comedienne responded to attacks on Twitter and doubled down: “We were not talking about good teachers who do a great job. We were talking about getting rid of teachers who don’t do a good job.” She lectured, “My mother was a teacher. So, this is not about bashing teachers…

The New Republic, a magazine with a long liberal tradition is also on the dump tenure band wagon,

. One argument typically offered by tenure defenders is that teaching is a notoriously difficult profession in which to measure success. But this is true for lots of jobs—yet, in all other professions, efforts are still made, however imperfect, to evaluate whether an employee is succeeding and to remove those who are not. Why should teaching be different? In fact, given that teaching is arguably the most important job in our society, it would be difficult to name a profession, save maybe the military, for which these sorts of heightened job protections would be less logical. If a job is truly important to the nation’s future, then you want to make sure that the most able, talented people are doing it—and doing their best work at all times.

That goal is simply incompatible with tenure. Indeed, tenure is so illogical that it’s impossible to see why it shouldn’t be abolished.

I think back over the decades, the teacher union (UFT) in New York City was trashed over the lengthy acrimonious 1968 strike. Teachers participated in UFT-led freedom marches deep into the South, teachers spent their summers in freedom schools, Martin Luther King was honored by the UFT with its highest award, yet the very same supporters of Civil Rights, anti-war liberals, vilified the union over the strike.

The strike was over a core union principle, tenure. One of the experimental school districts fired a group of white teachers and John Lindsay, the mayor, refused to intervene, in fact, his deliberate inaction led to a forty-day strike. The unintended consequences: Lindsay, desperate to win back angry teachers and run for the presidency in 1972, negotiated a new pension system, Tier 1, a pension tier that allows the “lawless strikers” of 1968 to retire without fear of pauperdom, and, BTW, Lindsay was soundly defeated in the Florida Republican primary, partly by angry teachers, friends and parents of teachers. (See Tamar Jacoby, Someone Else’s House: America’s Unfinished Struggle for Integration, Free Press, 1998).

In my view some months down the road a court will rule that the tenure suit is not “ripe,” meaning, the teacher evaluation law is only two years old and it’s too early to draw judgments about the impact of the law – come back in a few years.

Additionally, let us remember Supreme Court justices, the lowest rung of the courts, are elected in New York State, usually without much of a race – why antagonize the deep-pocketed teachers union, a union with members in every nook and cranny of the state.

The Story Behind the Story:

    Anger over the political power of teacher unions

* David Boies, Whoopi Goldberg, the New Republic and the other liberals who have jumped on the dump tenure band wagon are just like the “liberals” of the late 60s that trashed the teachers union. The new union, which only gained collective bargaining in 1961, was rapidly growing in power and influence, Lindsay saw the Oceanhill-Brownsville dispute as an opportunity to weaken or destroy the union and the “liberal left” jumped on board. Forty plus years later the American Federation of Teachers is also growing in power and influence; building coalitions with immigrant organizations, with civil rights organizations, the LGBT community, the women’s right agenda, from teacher issues to health care issues the AFT seems to be everywhere. Just as the liberal left was wrong in 1968 they are wrong in 2014 – just as they were used by Lindsay the left is, ironically, being used by the Republican strategists.

The UFT came out of the 1968 strike bruised and determined – the union rapidly grew in strength, and, a year later the paraprofessionals, almost all women of color, chose to be represented by the UFT over DC 37, a heavily minority union. The current assaults on tenure will simply strength the resolve of teacher unions.

    * Forcing the liberal left to confront their own racism – what happened to integration and childhood poverty and income inequality?

The liberal left is liberal as long as the “liberalism” doesn’t conflict with their own values – our schools are more segregated than ever before, and, Brownstone Brooklyn and the Upper West Side defend white school enclaves. David Boise could be using his legal skills to defend voter suppression throughout Republican controlled states, and Whoopi Goldberg could start a campaign to end childhood poverty – among the thirty-five OECD nations we are “better than Turkey and Mexico,” income inequality is the highest since 1928, incarceration rates are strikingly higher for people of color, “African Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses. From 1980 to 2007 about one in three of the 25.4 million adults arrested for drugs was African American,” and, let’s not forget we lead the world in the percent of our citizens who are incarcerated.

Why do Boise and Goldberg choose to use their skills to end teacher tenure? It is a “safe” way to express their liberalism, it is popular, after all, everyone can remember some teacher they didn’t like, and, lest we forget, not so deep beneath the surface is an abiding racism that pervades our society.

    * Communities of color support teachers and unions

You may not have noticed that the major civil rights organizations, the NAACP, the Urban League, the A Philip Randolph Institute have not jumped on the dump tenure train, in fact, they work closely with teacher unions. You may ask, yes, the leadership of these organizations support the union, how about parents and members of communities? Sol Stern, reporting in City Journal writes,

“… according to a poll of city voters commissioned by the Manhattan Institute and conducted earlier this year by Zogby Analytics … New Yorkers now trust the oft-maligned teachers more than they trust the mayor’s office: almost half of all respondents said that teachers should “play the largest role in determining New York City’s education policy,” compared with 28 percent who thought that the [Bloomberg] schools chancellor should.”

    * Tenure rules may need tweaking

In 2009 the UFT and the City negotiated changes to streamline the tenure process and the City unilaterally toughened up the tenure-granting process. In New York City teachers serve a three year probationary period, the principal can extend for a fourth year. A series of administrative changes speeds up the process – the average case in New York City, from beginning to end takes four months. The rules for terminating a tenured teacher for incompetence, aka “ineffectiveness” is now governed by the new state law, and, this year we will probably see the first group of charges preferred.

One of the reasons why cases dragged out in the past was a dispute between the State Education Department and the arbitrators over rates of pay.

Teaching is probably the only profession in which half of new employees leave voluntarily within five years. Are principals selecting the wrong candidates? Are schools of education not preparing their students? Or, maybe it’s just a difficult job in a climate of constant belittling of teachers.

And, of course, teachers will fight back; perhaps writing to sponsors urging them to replace Whoopi Goldberg, all is fair in love and war.

Once upon a time teachers were fearful and easy targets – now – with leaders like Diane Ravitch, Karen Lewis and Randi Weingarten, rather than hiding in the shadows they stand up to bullies, and skilled in social media they tweet, “bring it on …” and fight back.


6 responses to “Why Do Liberals Hate Tenure? Remembering John Lindsay, Liberals and the 1968 Strike.

  1. James S.vlasto

    Brilliant essay.
    Goldberg. Boise, New Republic can and will be derailed. Goldberg and Boise parents were teachers. When? They should visit a NYC public school to educate themselves on huge effort made by teachers to educate these children most of them of color and from a single parent or guardian home. These celebrities are so isolated from the real world they haven’t a clue.



  2. I think that the word ‘liberal’ has lost all utility. Why does support of marriage equality and the destruction of due process for teachers entitle someone to that label? Just as conservatives cannot answer the question, “Just what is it that you want to conserve?” I don’t see evidence that any of these ‘liberals’ are doing all that much to spread the blessings of democracy.


  3. I concur with Peter Goodman’s astute analysis. Union bashing has a long, sordid history in American culture. Failing students with substandard skills often stem from broken families. With a penchant for quick-fix solutions and targeting scapegoats, teachers become easy prey. Despite her gifts as a comedienne, Whoopie Goldberg is no expert on this knotty subject. As far as the other so-called limousine liberals go, Goodman is right on the money. They reinforce what is fast becoming a two-tier society. teachers in the trenches, like this correspondent, know what works and what does not. Charter schools, a recent fad, does not work according to the current research. Perhaps the old clarion call “Solidarity Forever” will make all of us stronger, including our public schools: the bedrock of democracy.


  4. Looking back over my lifetime, I can say without equivocation that much of my personna that is me today, was forged by strong liberal views and liberal role models that I ws exposed to early in my life,that led me to many of my present day philosophical tenants.Getting rid of tenure for me was and is however inconceivable. In the school where I made “my bones” it was an honor to achieve tenure. So much so that at every end term party, the Principal proudly recognized those among the staff who had achieved tenure that year. He called each of us forward, and shook our hands and “beamed” showing his pride for all to see. It was this way you see, because he and his Supervisory team had done their diligence in getting us to that point. Tenure was not a given, it was an outgrowth of hard work and being able to deliver instruction at Blooms highest ordered thinking skills level. On another note, I grew up (profesionally) when decentralized school boards would openly deny tenure to those who had earned it.They did this for no other reason then spite. I undestand that the practise of granting certificates of Tenure has been cheapened,tarnished, miss- applied,and corrupted. But Teachers where I come from, dont get tenure unless they’ve earned it. Trouble is, no one knows how to be a supervisor these days, its the supervisor who should be held accountable for weak or poor teachers who achieve tenure under his/her watch. With thaqt said,achieving tenure should continue to be one of the highest professional benchmarks, it is wrong for it to be removed from our profession. In the final analysis, I have always believed that some of the methods that unions use to get continuances of weak and poor teachers could be negotiated out of contractual language. But that is a topic for another discussion.


  5. In response to your statement quoted below:

    “The strike was over a core union principle, tenure. One of the experimental school districts fired a group of white teachers and John Lindsay, the mayor, refused to intervene, in fact, his deliberate inaction led to a forty-day strike.”

    It is patently untrue that teacher firings provoked the 1968 strike or that it was prolonged by Lindsay’s refusal to intervene. What do you think Lindsay should have done in the face of strong community support for the Ocean Hill/Brownsville Community school board that grew to include the large majority of the Black and Puerto Rican community citywide, a sizable section of municipal unions and a signicant minority within the UFT who supported community control?

    Did you ever read the letter that was sent to the 11 teachers from the Ocean Hill/Brownsville Community Board? Jerald Podair’s book, The Strike That Changed New York reprints it in full. I suggest you read it and correct your mis statement. There is a world of difference between a transfer and a firing, its called a paycheck. Yet this distinction between a firing and a transfer has been collapsed into the mythical firings that never happened. Why can’t you just acknowledge the distinction? Why is it so important to the historical narrative of official UFT history to obscure this detail? Could it be something else was going on that provoked the longest public worker strike in NYC history that the UFT leadership and its supporters would rather be excised from the historical record. Those who did not live through it may never know their history, those who lived through it may be forever battered down by the repetition ad nauseum of falsehoods.

    Furthermore I think your inattention to the facts extends to your conflation with tenure as a core union principle. Tenure I believe predates the establishment of the UFT. Seniority on the other hand is generally recognized as a core union principle, but oops, Weingarten gave that up in the 2005 contract and many tenured UFT members are roaming in the ATR wilderness. I’m not sure about this but I think that tenure in NYC dates from the Progressive Era when the elites sought to wrest control over municipal hiring from Tammany Hall bosses under the flag of “merit.”

    Show message history


  6. *What do you think Lindsay should have done in the face of strong community support for the Ocean Hill/Brownsville Community school board that grew to include the large majority of the Black and Puerto Rican community citywide, a sizable section of municipal unions and a significant minority within the UFT who supported community control?”

    Sean, as I referenced in the blog post less than a year after the strike paraprofessionals, almost all women of color participated in a representation election: DC 37, an almost all minority union versus the UFT – the real members of the community, workers, chose the UFT. The strike was polarizing in the city and within the union – however the real working people, the thousands of paraprofessionals, voted for the UFT. Lindsay feared the 1964 Harlem riots and refused to confront the rabble-rousers, and decentralization, which Lindsay steered through the legislature was a disaster for three decades.

    Ocean-hill-Brownsville was one of three demonstration school districts and Lindsay could have refused to allow the firings, or forced transfer of teachers – all white teachers many of whom were union activists.

    Lindsay. and the “liberals” strongly supported decentralization. The three decades of decentralization are characterized by corruption, patronage and the abandonment of the children in the poorest communities in the city. What Al Shanker presaged, that self-appointed community leaders were far more interested in political power and self-aggrandizement than the education of children came to fruition.

    The minority in the union that opposed the strike and crossed the picket lines saw their dreams of community run schools destroyed as school board after school showed no regard for children.

    In a Bronx district the superintendent ordered at least one bi-lingual class on every grade in every school. When a principal objected, arguing he didn’t have any kids who required bi-lingual instruction the superintendent responded, “You may not have kids, the school board has friends who need jobs – create the classes.”


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