Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One The NEA, Representatively Assembled
"Alas, regardless of their doom
The little victims play!
-- Thomas Gray,
"Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College"
They're extraordinarily "fat, for a start.
Not all of them, of course. But as you stand looking out across the cavernous Orange County Convention Center, where the National Education Association is holding its 1999 annual meeting -- which it calls its "Representative Assembly" and boasts is the largest democratic deliberative body in the world -- you can't avoid the curious feeling that you've stumbled into a sort of indoor rally for human hot-air balloons. An alarming proportion of attendees wobble and waddle through the teeming crowds of teachers -- there are reportedly nine thousand delegates and several thousand guests -- with thighs like tree trunks, bellies billowing, jowls jiggling.
You don't want to be mean, of course. But you can't help thinking: what sort of classroom role model for America's schoolchildren can these teachers be?
Perhaps the NEA Assembly really is Representative. Although it often comes as news to national journalists isolated on both yuppiefied coasts, as Michael Fumento has pointed out, three-fourths of the US. population is overweight and at least a fifth is obese, to the point where Europeans can pick out Americans in crowds. But it's somehow surprising, given the NEA's unmistakably teacherish air of perfection and its habit, deeply irritating to political conservatives, of demanding perfection from America and the world at large. Resolutions passed at recent Representative Assemblies include: "The Association also expresses concern that the practice of capitalpunishment in the United States impacts individuals disproportionately on the basis of social class, race, ethnicity, and gender." ("Gender?!) "The Association strongly recommends pre-service preparation and staff development for education employees that present strategies for handwriting instruction of left-handed students. Such training should also address sensitizing instructional staff to the needs of left-handed students." "The Association also opposes the exploitation of women as mail-order brides."
Moral of this story: the NEA is human. It's fallible.
But still, it's also, well, large. You wouldn't want it sitting on you -- the way it's sitting on America's government school system.
The NEA Representative Assembly is held over every Fourth of July weekend. But the atmosphere is not patriotic but partisan. In trusting private, speakers are blatantly political and unquestioningly liberal-Democratic. They routinely denounce the "Extreme Right" and the Republican Party, somehow not bothering to distinguish between the two. State delegations hold caucuses and are seated in separate sections with banners and insignia, just like a national political convention.
This year, the Florida delegation seems to be holding a competition for the most insulting poster punning on Governor Jeb Bush's name. (Bush has especially annoyed the union by signing into law a program that provides for the assigning of a letter grade to every government school in the state. Parents whose children attend schools with a grade of "F" are to receive a voucher for any school, government or private, they wish to choose.) The posters get very insulting indeed. Sometimes they are in dubious taste. Therole-model question crosses your mind again.
When the NEA speaks, politicians listen. Every year, the NEA summons some prominent national political figure to be its guest keynote speaker. This year, it is Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is beginning what seems likely to be a bitter battle to be elected senator from New York. Her entrance is ecstatically hailed. Her exit is bid an ecstatic farewell. But the hail is no more ecstatic than the farewell, because Clinton's speech is artless, policy-wonkish and, frankly, mildly anti-climactic. It might almost have been written by an NEA committee -- as it probably was. Much of it is a long, detailed list of somewhat trivial NEA objectives that she dutifully endorses ("Phase out emergency certification! ... Don't give new teachers the toughest jobs!")
The crowd applauds each one until Clinton plods into a passage supporting charter schools, albeit only if they are staffed by NEA members. This is greeted with stricken silence. Charter schools are another fashionable reform idea in education: they are public but independent of local regulation, often with significant private input (see Chapter 11). The NEA has endorsed them reluctantly -- and only if they are unionized, naturally. But they are still viewed with intense suspicion by the activist rank and file.
Clinton and her speechwriters have betrayed a tin ear. You begin to feel that she will not prevail in a contest against a ruthless counterpuncher like New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, her presumed Republican opponent. (In the event, Giuliani withdraws from the race because of ill health and Clinton, with teacher unions support, handily beats the candidate put up by the Republicanmachine.)
The NEA's intense partisanship is actually even more surprising than it might appear. The union's own figures have shown that about a third of its members are Republicans. Almost half have voted for winning Republican presidential candidates like Ronald Reagan and George Bush. There is even an "NEA Republican Educators' Caucus," although cynics wonder who is supposed to be influencing whom. (Answer: the NEA/REC's literature on "Organizing a State Republican Educators' Caucus" says sternly, "Keep uppermost in your mind that the goal of our group is to support and perpetuate the cause of public i.e., government education ... ")
You do see a few of the thin-lipped, aggrieved-looking student-leftist types you've grown to know and love when you were attending college. Arguably in this category is the well-dressed, carefully coiffed figure of Robert Chanin, the NEA's longtime general counsel and partner in the Washington, D.C., labor law firm Bredhoff and Kaiser, viewed by many as the power behind the NEA throne. He prowls restlessly along the side of the auditorium and eventually leaves abruptly, muttering in disgust at one of the many procedural tangles.
The weakening standards of public education have been at the forefront of political discussion in America for years. In this incisive new work, Peter Brimelow and Michael Antonucci argue that no educational reforms, however worthy, can ever work unless a solution is found to a central problem in the system: the teachers' unions. Equating modern teachers' unions with the monopolies and trusts that dominated headlines a century ago, The Worm in the Apple exposes a corrupt institution that has succeeded in controling and exploiting the school system. It shows why:
-- The NEA, as the largest teacher union, effectively operates as a political party
-- The U.S. spends more money per student than most industrialized nations, yet still gets lower results.
-- The classroom placement of children, and the school's curriculum and textbooks, will become bargaining chips in labor negotiations.
America is the richest nation in history, but ask young American students from whom their country won its independence, and the answers include Japan, China, and Canada. For decades our education standards have paled in comparison with those of other industrial and even Third World countries, while education costs have risen inexorably. The fact that our schools are in shambles has been the subject of endless debate, and the explanations have run the gamut: teachers are underpaid; students are undisciplined; teaching methods are wrong. But until now, no one has persuasively identified the root problem: the teacher unions.
It is no coincidence that the thirty-year decline in U.S. K-12 education, and the simultaneous surge in education spending, began at the same time that the modern teacher unions were created. Today, the biggest union in the country is the National Education Association, which has nearly 3 million members. Its agenda is not to provide better teaching in schools; it is to provide more money and benefits for teachers -- and, above all, for itself. It accomplishes this through collective bargaining muscle and by buying political influence. Even worse, the unions want to turn curriculum, textbooks, and grading standards into bargaining chips in labor negotiations.
In this devastating critique, Peter Brimelow exposes the teacher unions for what they are: a political and economic monopoly that is choking the education system, like the "trusts" that put a stranglehold on American business a hundred years ago. Until the unions are held accountable, and public schools opened up to market forces, no education reform, no matter how worthy, will succeed. It is time, Brimelow convincingly argues, to bust the Teacher Trust.
The Worm in the Apple paints an alarming picture of the bureaucratic parasite that has taken hold of our schools. It issues a clarion call to rescue students, parents, taxpayers and, not least, teachers -- from its grip.
About the Author
Peter Brimelow, who has two children in public school, is the editor of VDARE.COM, a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute, and a columnist for CBS MarketWatch. A financial journalist, he has written extensively about the NEA and the economics of education in Forbes and Fortune. The author of Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster, he has contributed to the Wall Street Journal the New York Times, and the Washington Post.