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Al Shanker, Tough Liberal

GRACE CREEK MEDIA
'THINK TANK'
INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD KAHLENBERG
CORRESPONDENT: BEN WATTENBERG

BEN WATTENBERG:
As labor leader and president of the American Federation of Teachers Albert Shanker was one of the most influential figures in education in the second half of the 20th Century. Though his journey from union leader to educational reformer was not without controversy he would ultimately be honored by both liberals and conservatives. Who was this complex man? To find out Think Tank is Joined by Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author ďTough Liberal, Albert Shanker and the battles over Schools, Unions, Race and DemocracyĒ. The topic before the house, Al Shanker, Tough Liberal- This week on Think Tank.



BEN WATTENBERG:
Rick Kahlenberg, welcome to Think Tank. Iíd like to begin as we normally do, tell us a little bit about your background, your sort of short-form bio.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Well, Iím a-- a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, which is a progressive think tank. Iíve written about education-- issues of affirmative action, which-- led me directly to one of the giants in the area of education, Al Shanker
BEN WATTENBERG:
You say-- say progressive think tank. Thatís usually code these days for fairly liberal.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
It is a liberal-- think tank. And I-- I guess-- I-- you know, I use-- in the title of the book the word liberal because I think itís something that needs to be re-claimed.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Do you regard yourself as a liberal in the current general usage?
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
I guess I-- I think of myself along the lines of Al Shanker, as more of a tough liberal-- which I find more politically potent and persuasive than either orthodox liberalism or-- orthodox conservatism today.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Okay. Let me ask you to begin with the way you begin the book about that famous anecdote of Woody Allen-- thatís a real grabber.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Right.
BEN WATTENBERG:
So, letís hear that.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Well, Al Shankerís probably the only union leader ever to make it into a Woody Allan movie. In the 1973 movie Sleeper-- itís a shi-- science fiction comedy. Woody Allanís character wakes up 200 years in the future to find out that two centuries earlier the-- the world as we knew it had been destroyed. And he asked, 'Well, what happened?' And the answer was, 'A man by the name of Albert Shanker got a hold of a nuclear warhead.' (LAUGHTER) Now, Al-- Al Shanker was seen-- as a-- a hothead, someone who-- was busy shutting down the New York City schools and its million students-- at the drop of a hat. And so thatís where-- thatís where that line came from.
BEN WATTENBERG:
And-- and you spend the-- a good part of the book-- sorting of knocking down that-- that image.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Oh, absolutely. I mean, far from being a-- a madman-- I think Al Shanker was a real visionary on issues of labor and education and--
BEN WATTENBERG:
Yeah.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
--and race and foreign policy.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Yeah, well-- well, I had the privilege of knowing him. In fact, we were quite friendly. And he had a great influence on me. I didnít agree with him on everything, but he was a real Polly Math-- a most unbelievable man. Why donít you pick up his life, and letís sort of march through it?
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Well, he was-- born on the Lower East Side, New York City-- or Manhattan-- in-- 1928. His father was a-- newspaper deliverer. His mother was a seamstress. And she was a member of the-- International Labor-- Ladies Garment Workers Union. So she was-- he came by unionism naturally.

He grew up-- one of the only Jews in a-- a tough Catholic neighborhood, and really was-- the subject of some vicious anti-Semitism growing up. The other kids in the neighborhood wouldnít play with him. And so he ended up spending a lot of time on his own-- reading-- listening to music-- that sort of thing.

There was one episode, in fact-- when he was eight years old-- he had some-- some kids in the neighborhood who came up to and said, 'Weíd like to initiate you into our club.' And, you know, this was great for him. Theyíd never shown any interest in him in the past. And then they took him out to an empty lot and-- and put a noose around his neck and almost-- almost strung him up. And-- and-- so it was-- it was a-- it was a hor-- horrific episode that-- that stayed with him the rest of his life.
BEN WATTENBERG:
And this was-- had overtones, or not so much overtones of anti-Semitism
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Oh, absolutely. No, the kids were saying they were avenging the-- you know, the-- the death of Christ. So, it was-- it was-- it was terrible. I mean, most-- most Jews living in New York City in those days-- faced anti-Semitism, but at least they had the cocoon of a neighborhood.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Of-- of a Jewish neighborhood, yeah.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Yeah. And-- and Al Shanker did not have that.
BEN WATTENBERG:
And-- that-- labor background, with the-- very famous-- IOGWU-- sort of forged his original political identity, I assume.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Absolutely. No, in his household-- unions were just-- just below God

BEN WATTENBERG:
and then he gets-- interested in the Civil Rights Movement, is that right?
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Well, thatís right. He-- he went off to college-- at the university of Illinois. And-- there was-- not only a lot of anti-Semitism there, but also-- you know, vicious anti-black attitudes. The-- the theatres were-- were segregated. Some of the restaurants were segregated in Champagne-Urbana area. And-- so, he got involved in the civil rights movement-- involved in sit-ins to protest segregation. He was very involved in a Socialistsí Club-- and-- and
BEN WATTENBERG:
Later-- I mean, he was very active in the-- in the subsequent civil rights thing, marching in-- in the south. And it was somewhat ironic later on when he took positions-- very liberal, but-- race-neutral rather than-- than-- the quotas that he was criticized by blacks.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Yes, well the-- the-- the high point of the criticism of Al Shanker came in 1968 with the strikes-- in-- in Ocean Hill Brownsville-- New York. There was a-- a movement which involved-- people who were part of the Black Power-- agenda. And then kind of the-- the white shoe establishment, Mayor John Lindsey and McGeorge Bundy, who came together and said, 'We ought to give more control to-- African Americans for their-- for their own schools.' Well, all hell broke loose in May 1968 when-- the-- local black school board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville fired a number of-- white teachers, most of the them who were Jewish, also and-- gave no-- cause for their-- their firing. They-- they felt they didnít to give a rationale. They just wanted to have-- more diversity in the-- in the schools.

And Al Shanker stood up to that. He said, 'Thatís not what-- liberalism has stood for all these years.' And so he led-- a series of strikes that shut down the entire New York City-- public school system. A million students were thrown outta school for a total of 36 days-- in September, October of--
BEN WATTENBERG:
And thatís where the Woody Allen thing comes in, is that right?
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Thatís right, thatís right. And-- and Woody Allen thought that he was a bit of a madman for-- for doing that. But Al Shanker said This is a very simple question. ďYou know, my teachers were part of a union. They have a right to know why theyíve been fired.Ē You know, you have to give a good reason. You canít just fire them for-- for no reason.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Right.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
And-- and yet for that-- taking that stand, he was-- charged-- with the-- the racist epithet. I mean, it was-- incredible for someone whoíd marched with Martin Luther King, and who had been part of the-- anti-segregation movement to-- to then see--
BEN WATTENBERG:
Itís very-- interesting situation. There was this huge anti-Semitic aspect to it. But he was basically behaving like a union leader, saying my-- my-- my folks were fired without cause.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Thatís right. Yes.

SOT: AL SHANKER
I had a political and social pre-disposition to unionism and then my experiences on the job, I donít think it took one day before I realized that something was wrong and that what my mother had had in the factory for many years was the same thing that teachers needed in the school

RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
he became a-- he became a public school teacher in the-- in the-- early 1950s. So, he went to graduate school at Columbia, tried to get a PhD in philosophy, and couldnít finish his dissertation. So, he left kind of the rarified environs of a-- a Columbia PHD program and found himself teaching in a-- in a pretty tough-- elementary school-- in-- in East Harlem. And he-- he was struck by two things. One, was the very low pay of the teachers.
You could make more washing cars than you could teaching in New York City public schools in those days. And the second thing he saw was the-- dictatorial power of the principle. The principle really could decide-- whatever he or she wanted to-- for the-- for the teachers.
So he-- he-- he felt as though teachers were not-- being given the respect that they needed. Not treated as-- as professionals.

AL SHANKER (SOT)
Now that word ďprofessionalĒ is becoming more and more of a dirty word for teachers. It is a word with which the administrator uses when he turns around anything he doesnít like that the teacher is doing, he says ďyou are not being professional, be good, be obedient, keep your mouth shut, donít rock the boat, donít do anything against the administration, behave.Ē He is really saying this is not a school, itís a military establishment, I am the general- if you donít listen to my orders you are going to be court marshaled, or something like that is going to happen to you

RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
And-- now, there were several obstacles to-- forming a union in those days. For one thing, because teachers were public employees, they couldnít go on strike legally. It was illegal to-- to strike.

And so no one thought you could organize public employees. Secondly, these were professionals. They were college-educated and they considered unions to be beneath them. That-- you know, that was fine for their parents, but theyíd gotten a college degree and didnít think that-- they needed a union.

And the third problem was teacher disunity in New York City. There were 106 different organizations for teachers. There were organizations for high school teachers, other ones for elementary school teachers.
BEN WATTENBERG:
And-- and these were not unions. They were study groups. They were social groups. They were-- economic groups. But not-- credit union groups.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
No-- no--
BEN WATTENBERG:
But-- but not, per say, unions.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Thatís right. Thatís right. They werenít particularly for-- for collective bargaining. There was only one that was for collective bargaining. That was the Teacherís Guild. And Shanker became active in-- in that effort. And-- ultimately was able to create unity among a number of different teacher groups, and create the United Federation of Teachers in New York City.

BEN WATTENBERG:
weíre telling the story of a New York situation here. But that basically set a national-- and I guess in some ways an international pattern. I mean, Al-- al--
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Absolutely.
BEN WATTENBERG:
--became an-- an extremely-- influential man as a union leader, as a political force. He was then on the board of the AFLCIO, and probably the most-- erudite and-- and politically active guy there. So he-- he cast a long shadow-- this is not an small (SIC) story.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Thatís right, absolutely. I mean, he-- he built the-- New York City teacher union into the largest local in the AFLCIO, nationally. And then probably more importantly he got the NEA-- the much larger--
BEN WATTENBERG:
This the Nat--
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
National Education Association.
BEN WATTENBERG:
And that was, at that time, not a union.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
It was not a union. It included principles and superintendents as well as teachers. And they were in fact anti-union. They were opposed to collective bargaining.

Well-- Al Shanker set the stage in New York City for a big suc-- success. Teacher wages and benefits went up. And the NEA found itself having to reverse its position on collective bargaining. Because otherwise they wouldíve lost all the members to the-- to the smaller American Federation of Teachers.
BEN WATTENBERG:
I see. And-- and then he-- he takes the local and nationalizes and comes to Washington as the first president of the American Federation of Teachers?
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Well, he wasnít-- wasnít the very first American Federation of Teacherís president. But he was-- he was-- elected in 1974 as president of the-- of the national union, the-- the American Federation of Teachers.
BEN WATTENBERG:
And-- and-- and-- and he was active-- I mean, I-- I knew him in a context-- not principally as a union leader but he was very active in foreign policy as well. I mean, he-- he felt, as did-- George Meeney (PH) and Lane Kirkland-- I mean those-- those unions are called the international unions. The teachers and the machinists (SIC), and-- and the plumbers, theyíre the international federation of this or that. And they really felt that-- they had a global responsibility (COUGHING) inó

AL SHANKER (SOT)
There is no freedom or democracy without trade unions. The first thing a dictator does is get rid of the trade unions. The very idea of unionism is solidarity, it means Iím not strong enough to do things alone- Iíve got to band together with brothers and sisters, and you canít just do that with teachers, youíre not strong enough so you are in a general labor movement with other workers.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
I think if youíre trying to understand Al Shanker, the key is that concept of democracy. That thatís what ties together all his different views- So he was, you know, a big proponent of public schools, because he thought they were essential to a democracy.

He thought trade unions were essential democracy. But it also took him in interesting directions. I mean, he was a strong anti-Communist Cold War era because he thought that it was important that-- that-- well that the-- the Communists were defeating democracy-- abroad. And then he was a-- a big opponent of racial preferences, again, because he thought in a democracy, you had to treat everyone by the same measuring stick.
That once you started favoring certain racial groups, even for-- for good purposes-- that then that-- that really got to the heart of (UNINTEL).
(OVERTALK)
BEN WATTENBERG:
Now-- let me just tell you a-- a personal-- incident which tells you how persuasive a man Al was. Course he-- he was one of the fa-- fathers of the charter school movement, which is now-- omnipresent in-- in American education circles. But he-- was adamantly opposed-- he may have been for it originally, but then adamantly opposed to school vouchers, where-- where the government gave a cash grant to-- or-- or a voucher to a parent, say you can put your kid in any school.

And-- I had written some stuff. We did some think tank programs. And I basically thought it was a pretty good idea. And I was-- appointed by-- not one of my favorite people, President-- Carter-- as was Al, to a-- human rights delegation that was meeting in Madrid. CSCA, whatever that stands for.

And we flew together-- I think some Air Force plane for nine hours, from DC to Madrid. And just did-- he was a great-- vinophile, a great wine drinker. He was a-- a great connoisseur of that. And we spent hours and hours talking and-- and-- and I donít persuade that easily, but I wouldnít write or say a word against vouchers for half a dozen years.

All right? He really--
(OVERTALK)
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
(LAUGHTER) of course-- but he had a different argument for-- against school vouchers than the NEA has. The NEA says you-- we donít want to divert money from the public schools. And Al Shanker agreed with that. But ultimately, he said, you know, in a-- in a diverse country such as ours, we need institutions that are gonna bind us together.
We donít want-- you know, Catholics going off to their own schools, Protestants going off to theirs. Arabs going off to their own schools. I mean he-- he-- was--
(OVERTALK)
BEN WATTENBERG:
But-- but-- but of course-- in a free country where-- aside from any segregation, you have Jewish neighborhoods, you have Catholic neighborhoods. You have Irish neighborhood. You certainly have Arab neighborhoods. Youíre gonna get that if Arab Americans wanna live in an Arab neighborhood and you have a neighborhood school, youíre gonna have mostly Arab kids there-- Arab American kids there. And-- or Black or Jewish-- Jewish neighborhoods have kind of-- disintegrated in-- in-- in most places. And the parents regard that as a good thing, not as a bad thing.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
And-- and-- well he was concerned about that, though. I mean he was-- he wanted not through forced bussing, but through magnet schools, to--
--to bring kids from different backgrounds together. He thought ultimately, the-- the rationale for public education was to teach kids what it means to be an American. And part of that was bringing kids together from different backgrounds. But part of it was having a curriculum that-- taught democracy explicitly. And that-- taught American history and our institutions. And the last thing he wanted was for-- public or private schools to teach each group the-- their own (UNINTEL).
(OVERTALK)
BEN WATTENBERG:
And-- and-- and that-- that brings us-- that brings us to those-- those two seminal educational-- first that great-- that very controversial document, A Nation at Risk, which-- condemned the public school system. And then something that-- I knew Al in-- in context-- of-- which was that Goals and Standards movement. And you might-- tell us what that was all about. It-- it related very heavily to that idea of teaching democracy.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Thatís right. Thatís right. Well, the-- The Nation at Risk report in-- in 1983-- said that American public schools were starting to-- decline. That they were mediocre. And in fact we needed to do something dramatic to improve them. Most of the education establishments decried the report.

They said thereís-- thereís nothing real-- really wrong with public schools. We just need to continue to-- to fund them at-- at higher levels. And Al Shanker took a very different path and said, 'Actually we-- there are real problems with the public schools. We have to admit that.' And then looked abroad to find out, well, what were these other countries doing that were beating us year after year after year. Well they had--
BEN WATTENBERG:
Were beating us in test scores.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
In test scores, thatís right. And the answer was-- that-- he said the answer was that these other countries had a clearly defined set of goals and expectations of what children should know and be able to do. They had systems of testing to make sure that the kids were learning. And then there was accountability-- for teachers and for students if there was-- was failure. And he-- became--
BEN WATTENBERG:
And a lot of that was disparaged by the-- neuveau liberal educational establishment that said standards were unfair. Leaving peo-- kids back was unfair. That everybody had to advance on aóautomatically, and of course-- that did away with-- the-- the incentives for a kid to study hard.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Right. Yeah.

AL SHANKER (SOT)
When I was a teacher, I used to give the youngsters homework- there would be a chorus of voices. They all said the same thing- ďdoes it count,(laughing) some of you may have been there people behave differently when there are consequences attached to their behavior than if there are no consequences. And here we are, were talking about standards and assessments but we really had no discussion to does it count?

BEN WATTENBERG:
If-- if you have social promotion and you know even if you goof off, youíre gonna go on to the next grade-- a kidís gonna say, you know, 'Whatís in it for me?'
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Well thatís right. And-- and you know, he saw that-- you know, for most people-- most educated people, their kids were working hard because they wanted to get into selective colleges. But for the vast majority of students who do not go to those selective colleges-- it-- the-- the truth is, it-- it didnít really matter that much, how well they did academically.

And employers donít look at high school transcripts. And he said that we oughta place some incentives-- in there to make sure that-- that students have-- have-- a-- a real spur to-- to do well.

AL SHANKER (SOT)
Give the public what it wants and give the teachers what they want because they both want the same thing, they want whats right for kids and we can do it

BEN WATTENBERG:
As I understood it, and maybe you deal with it in the book, Al had a very interesting compact with the AFT. They said, 'Let Al speak for Al. Heís got views on foreign policy, heís got views on quotas, heís got views on a whole lot of thing (SIC).

'But we-- all we expect for him-- from him,' and because he was such a-- towering figure in the education world and the union where all the political-- 'all we want for him to do is represent our issues.' So he had this sort of split personality. He had two roles.

He was a-- you call him in your book a-- a public intellectual, which is a-- I think a-- I donít know if its-- sort of an American term. I mean-- a-- a-- and so in that role, he spoke for himself. And-- but he was also representative of the union. And in his case-- I donít know if it would work for m-- very many other people. But in his case it worked.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
It worked. It worked in part because, you know, he had gone to jail-- for teachers in n-- in the 1960s. Twice. Heíd served-- served jail time.
NEWS FOOTAGE (SOT)
Reporter: What do you think youíve proved by your stay in prison
Al Shanker: I wasnít trying to prove anything; I didnít ask them to send me here. I think what has been proven is that teaches are not going to give up their fight for professional dignity and they are not going to give up the fight for good schools and if this is the price we have to pay for it periodically that that price is going to be paid.

RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
And so, there was no question that he was out there defending their interests. And so, they gave him a little more leeway on some of these other issues.

On-- on foreign policy. On issues like racial quotas. He-- they-- they-- they knew in his-- in his-- in his heart that-- he was-- gonna protect their interest and so, they were-- they were more willing to-- to have him-- express unorthodox-- unorthodox views.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Of his own. Even though they were not-- not hi-- their views, necessarily?
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Not necessarily, although he spent a lot of time trying to educate his--
BEN WATTENBERG:
I understand.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
--his members as to why they should be concerned about promoting democracy abroad and why the should be for a, you know, a single-racial standard a-- across the board. And so, there were vigorous debates within the AFT-- over these issues.
BEN WATTENBERG:
I mean, just to sum it up, Rick, I mean, if you had to look at the-- organizing principle of his life, it was-- what comes beneath it all is a thirst for liberty.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Yes, sounds about right. I think a thirst for liberty and-- and democracy.
BEN WATTENBERG:
And thatís where labor unions come in. Thatís where foreign policy comes in. But thatís the superior--
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Thatís the organizing principle. You know, at-- at his memorial service-- at Shankerís memorial service, Bill Clinton said that Al Shanker would say one thing one day that would-- that liberals would love and conservatives would hate. And then the next day heíd say something that conservatives loved and liberals hated. As if there was some-- some-- maybe some incoherence to it.

But in fact, there was this unifying principle of democracy that made him a strong anti-Communist, an opponent of quotas, a supporter of public schools, and a strong supporter of trade unions. And right now, we donít have someone who puts that all together-- in the leadership of this country the way-- the way Al Shanker did.
BEN WATTENBERG:
I cannot think of a better way to put that, so-- Rick Kahlenberg, thank you so-- very much for-- joining us. Your book is a wonderful read. and thank you for-- joining us.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG:
Thank you.
BEN WATTENBERG:
And thank you. Please-- remember to send us your-- comments via e-mail. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.



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