In 1976, the one-term Georgia governor who used to surprise locals in Iowa by introducing himself and telling people he was running for president finished first in Iowa (actually, he finished behind uncommitted, but that counted as first) and went on to win the Democratic nomination.
How did he do it? How did a little-known governor whose self-introduction often produced guffaws manage to out-organize a long list of well-established and well-funded Democrats who barely took him seriously?
Part of it, to be sure, was the fact that Jimmy Carter and his two top aides practically moved to Iowa in an effort to meet as many voters as they could. But what many people considered key to Carter’s victory was the support of Iowa’s teachers union.
Think about organizing for a caucus. Think about the skills you need: sending out communications, keeping track of responses, organizing events, getting people engaged, duplicating flyers and materials — all things many teachers are very good at. But there’s something else teachers have that most other interest groups don’t: buses — warm buses on a cold night to take you to a boring meeting, often at the school, where you get to listen to speeches from your neighbors. According to those on the scene in 1976, you could drive up and down the highways at caucus time and see school buses everywhere.
Twelve years later, I watched a similar phenomenon when I was driven around Iowa and every other vehicle seemed to be a church bus. That caucus was, by the way, the birth of the Christian Coalition and the night of Pat Robertson’s greatest triumph.
It is taken as pure dogma inside the Democratic Party that support for teachers and support from teachers is critical to a successful campaign.
But when you adopt positions whose only justification is the support of the teachers union, the problem goes beyond politics.
Unions have been having a harder time lately. Even public employee unions, long the growth industry, have slowed their membership successes. And teachers? Many charter schoolteachers do belong to unions, but they are not the national teachers unions, which, in recent years, have come to be known as opposed to every reform other than those that would increase their salaries.
The problem is simple: Many teachers who are at their best five to 10 years in the classroom are burning out and dropping out because their union focuses only on security and seniority, not on the students, professional development, innovative curriculums, etc. So the more charter schools, the fewer traditional union members. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has come out forcefully and loudly against charter schools without once recognizing that the students who go to charter schools are not part of the cosseted crowd in Cambridge. They are African American and Latino and Asian. Almost all of them are poor. I say this having been involved in the charter school movement for 20 years — and having seen miracles.
No, not every charter school is a success. To say the same about public schools almost seems a joke. No one goes to a charter school unless their parents choose to send them. The reason they send them is for a better education. That may not produce packed school buses in Iowa, but education policy should be based on what’s good for our children, not for the teachers unions. The unions have had an opportunity to step forward, recognize problems, lead the effort to reform and call a truce in the war they began against charter schools. Somehow those who send their children to charter schools are hanging on to power by a thread, facing opposition from Trumpers, never-Trumpers and the very unions that represent not middle-class teachers but the poorest of the poor — janitors and hotel workers — in the hope that one day, like Warren, their children might achieve their academic dreams.