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Tough Liberal : Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy
In Woody Allen's 1973 film, Sleeper, a character wakes up in the future to learn that civilization was destroyed when "a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead." Shanker was condemned by many when he shut down the New York City school system in the bitter strikes of 1967 and 1968, and he was denounced for stirring up animosity between black parents and Jewish teachers. Later, however, he built alliances with blacks, and at the time of his death in 1997, such figures as Bill Clinton celebrated Shanker for being an educational reformer, a champion of equality, and a promoter of democracy abroad.
Shanker lived the lives of several men bound into one. In his early years, he was the "George Washington of the teaching profession," helping to found modern teacher unionism. During the 1980s, as head of the American Federation of Teachers, he became the nation's leading education reformer. Shanker supported initiatives for high education standards and accountability, teacher-led charter schools, and a system of "peer review" to weed out inadequate teachers. Throughout his life, Shanker also fought for "tough liberalism," an ideology favoring public education and trade unions but also colorblind policies and a robust anticommunism-all of which, Shanker believed, were vital to a commitment to democracy.
Although he had a coherent worldview, Shanker was a complex individual. He began his career as a pacifist but evolved into a leading defense and foreign policy hawk. He was an intellectual and a populist; a gifted speaker who failed at small talk; a liberal whose biggest enemies were often on the left; a talented writer who had to pay to have his ideas published; and a gruff unionist who enjoyed shopping and detested sports. Richard D. Kahlenberg's biography is the first to offer a complete narrative of one of the most important voices in public education and American politics in the last half century. At a time when liberals are accused of not knowing what they stand for, Tough Liberal illuminates an engaging figure who suggested an alternative liberal path.
Century Foundation senior fellow Kahlenberg, who has written previously about the public school wars (All Together Now), paints a gripping portrait of the iconoclastic and often contradictory teacher's union leader Albert Shanker (1928-1997). Born to working-class Russian-Jewish parents on New York's Lower East Side, Shanker worked on a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia by night while teaching by day in East Harlem. During the late '50s he was involved in organizing New York City's United Federation of Teachers, becoming its president in 1964. In 1974 he also became president of the national American Federation of Teachers. In this perceptive biography, Kahlenberg shows that the firebrand union militant who led illegal strikes that closed New York City's public schools in 1967 and 1968 was at the same time a forward-looking educational reformer who, despite pronounced liberal credentials, pushed initiatives that are today associated mostly with conservative educational agendas. Among Shanker's passions were lofty standards, teacher accountability and charter schools. Kahlenberg applauds all this, along with Shanker's fervent anticommunism and his many efforts--regardless of the black-Jewish antagonism the school strikes engendered--to reach out to people of color. The reader comes away admiring a man who navigated troubled times deftly and left behind a record of great accomplishment. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Columbia University Press
August 31, 2007
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Excerpt from Tough Liberal by Richard D. Kahlenberg
It is the peculiar fate of Albert Shanker that he is probably best remembered for something he never did. In Woody Allen's 1973 science fiction comedy Sleeper, Allen's character wakes up two hundred years in the future to learn that civilization was destroyed when "a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead." Shanker was considered by many New Yorkers, particularly liberals like Allen, to be a hothead and union thug for shutting down the entire New York City school system with bitter strikes in 1967 and 1968. As head of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the nation's largest union local, Shanker led a fourteen-day strike in 1967 and a thirty-six-day series of strikes in 1968, closing down the nation's largest public-school system and throwing the lives of one million students and their parents into chaos. His power to disrupt the school system was bad enough for his critics, but both incidents stirred up racial animosity, particularly between black parents and Jewish teachers. Shanker was denounced not only as a power monger for crippling the city's schools, but also as a racist for opposing the black community's quest for greater self-determination and control over the schools. Because it was illegal for New York's public employees to strike, Shanker was jailed after both incidents. When Woody Allen was writing the script for Sleeper and wondered whose name to use for a joke about a madman who had destroyed the world, he tried out a number of possibilities with people at Elaine's Restaurant. The name Albert Shanker got the biggest laugh.
Almost a quarter century later, however, it was a seemingly very different Albert Shanker who was eulogized at a ceremony featuring leading dignitaries at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. President Bill Clinton, using crutches following a recent accident, hobbled to the stage and spoke of Albert Shanker, the head of the national American Federation of Teachers (AFT) from 1974 to 1997, as an educational statesman, a personal "mentor," and "one of the most important teachers of the twentieth century." Clinton lauded Shanker as a champion of equity, recognizing that the education-standards movement Shanker led "was essential for democracy to work," because it "was the only way we could give every child, without regard to their background, a chance to live up to his or her God-given capacity." Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, speaking in his idiosyncratic clipped tones, painted Shanker as an intellectual and a gifted writer whose celebrated "Where We Stand" column appeared in the Sunday New York Times. "The impact was extraordinary," Moynihan said. "Union leaders in those days rarely wrote essays, still less felicitous, thoughtful analyses of public policy."
The list of speakers that day--which included Vice President Al Gore and Education Secretary Richard Riley--was evidence that Shanker was a powerful individual, as Woody Allen suggested, but speaker after speaker said Shanker exercised power well and judiciously: to upgrade the teaching profession, to promote democracy abroad, and to improve public education for American schoolchildren.
Some have hypothesized that there were two Albert Shanker's--a "bad Al" and a "good Al." The bad Al was the early, militant teachers' union leader who thirsted for power and poisoned race relations. The good Al came much later and was the statesman who led his union in the direction of education reform, even as parochial elements within the AFT fiercely resisted.
But the presence of Lorretta Johnson, one of the speakers at the ceremony that day, suggested the story wasn't so simple. A stout African American woman, Johnson was head of the AFT's division of "paraprofessionals," a group of mostly black and Latino teacher aides, many of them former welfare mothers, who were hired with federal money to help in low-income schools beginning in the 1960s.
Racial tensions ran high following the 1968 teachers' strike, which centered on the question of whether local black leaders had the right to dismiss tenured unionized white teachers and replace them, often with black teachers, as part of an effort to give ghetto communities greater control over their schools. Shanker was a hero of the white middle class, which backed him for standing up to black militants, but Shanker, who had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, wanted to make it clear that the issue was not black versus white, but the right of workers to be treated with dignity. Many of the black teacher aides had crossed the picket lines during the teachers' strike to try to keep schools open. But when Shanker saw the opportunity to organize the "paras," who were making as little as two dollars an hour, he jumped at the chance.