The Tribalism of Teacher Unions

In today’s New York Times Paul Krugman, in the context of the DNC and RNC conventions, describes the difference between tribalism and patriotism. Michelle Obama’s speech  was patriotic, especially when she spoke of waking up every morning in a house that was built by slaves and then  watching her daughters play on the White House lawn. “Love of country,” says Krugman, “doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be uncritical. But the faults you find, the critiques you offer, should be about the ways in which we don’t yet live up to our own ideals.” That’s patriotism. He continues,
If what bothers you about America is, instead, the fact that it doesn’t look exactly the way it did in the past (or the way you imagine it looked in the past), then you don’t love your country -- you care only about your tribe. And all too many influential figures on the right”  -- he mentions Trump, Pence, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly (“they were well fed and had decent lodgings) --  “are tribalists, not patriots.
Krugman’s piece reminded me of the recent interview by American Prospect’s Rachel Cohen of NEA President Lily Eskelson-Garcia, There’s no shortage here of distortions here  (the most highly-segregated schools, Eskelson-Garcia insists, are charter schools; Ted Kennedy wasn’t “sinister,” only lacking in understanding about the impact of accountability) but what jumped out at me was that the thoughts expressed by Eskelson-Garcia on behalf of NEA seemed, well, tribal. 

If the  tribalism expressed at the RNC was about, as Krugman says, “drawing a line between us (white Christians) and them (everyone else),” Eskelson-Garcia uses the same tactic (if tribalism can be a tactic and not a defect -- I’m trying to be generous here) when she draws a line between her own version of “us” -- teachers who teach in traditional schools and pay union dues -- and “them” -- teachers who teach in charter schools and don’t pay union dues.

Cohen asks Eskelson-Garcia about NEA and AFT’s “movement to unionize charter school teachers”and notes “the obvious tensions between trying to limit the growth of charter schools, while making charter school teachers feel welcome in the labor movement. How has the NEA been threading this needle?”

In response Eskelson-Garcia describes a visit she made to a California charter school to talk to teachers who were former members of the state’s NEA affiliate. She tells Cohen,
These were good-hearted, social justice warrior teachers who had been very loyal union members. They weren’t trying to leave the union, the charter school just seemed like an adventure. So they got there, and all was well in the beginning, but slowly they realized that they didn’t have the opportunities to make the kinds of decisions they expected to have a say in. The teachers felt lied to and exploited. So they came back to the CTA and said we need representation. They didn’t want to give up on their charter, but they wanted a union.
Eskelson-Garcia sees the charter teachers’ return to CTA as an arc of redemption. They unwittingly if adventurously left the  tribe (Krugman's white Christians) and then returned, forgiven their former trespasses.. Those teachers who didn’t return  remain “other.” She applies that same dichotomy to charter schools and traditional schools, an unnecessary and divisive tribal distinction that eventually found its way into the DNC education platform.

But is that really what’s best for kids? If we take a hint from Michelle Obama, then the “patriot” within us, the part that recognizes that our public school system has not yet lived up to our ideals, would welcome new ideas, new collaborations, new concepts of public schools like charters, because, as Krugman says, we are “a nation that is always seeking to become better, to transcend its flaws.”

To paraphrase Krugman, if what bothers you about America's public schools system is the fact that it doesn’t look exactly the way it did in the past (or the way you imagine it looked in the past), then you don’t love your  American public schools but you care only about your tribe.

Maybe it's time for a little less tribalism and a little more patriotism as we strive -- together, in all our various colors and creeds -- to live up to educational ideals.

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