by Lynnell Mickelsen

It’s been a week since the mass shootings in Roseburg, Oregon.  And I’ve spent the last seven days comparing the coverage and commentary on gun violence to education reform.

Yes, it’s weird. We ed reformers can be a wee bit obsessive in terms of looping everything back to education. But the politics and dynamics of gun control and ed reform are so similar, it’s worth taking a closer look.

With both issues, there’s a feeling of weary resignation that no matter how many people get shot or how many schools keep failing, the status quo will keep chugging along. We will be told, once again, that these problems are so incredibly big, complicated and cultural, there can be “no easy solutions.” And if someone does propose a solution, we’ll hear it’s the wrong one and won’t work. Examples of countries that regulate guns and don’t have mass shootings (like Canada, England, Japan and most of Western Europe) will be quickly dismissed. Ditto for the more than 1,000 high-performing charter schools all over the country where low-income kids of color are thriving.

Instead, we’ll hear that the only true solution is to double-down. The answer to mass shootings is for more people to carry guns. The answer to failing district schools is to invest more money in them while getting rid of charters.

Both issues are dominated by powerful lobbies that block even the most mild reforms. The National Rifle Association controls the Republican party.  National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers wield huge influence over Democrats.  For the NRA, the last eight years have been great as the election of the country’s first African-American president galvanized their members.  According to the Pew Research Center, while the percentage of Democrats who favored gun rights over gun control stayed steady (at 31 percent), Republicans favoring gun rights shot up dramatically to 75 percent.  “It seems clear that being pro-gun has become a key element of Republican self-identification,” writes Talking Points Memo blogger Josh Marshall.

This is a huge win for the NRA because if you can turn an issue into a key part of self-identity, party members don’t have to think much about policies, much less facts or research. Their support is automatic.

This is also where the similar narratives between the NRA and teachers’ unions diverge a bit.  Twenty years ago, conservatives mostly led the education reform movement, in part because loyalty to the teachers union was such a key element of Democratic party identity that Democrats were loathe to speak out.  But the ed reform movement is now increasingly led by people who openly identify as progressives and/or Democrats, starting with President Obama, outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his successor John King. Furthermore, public polling  still shows strong support for tenure reforms and charter schools, especially among people of color, who are the fastest growing segment of the Democratic party.

In response to these trends, the NEA and AFT are trying to rebrand themselves as “social justice” unions and align themselves  with the Black Lives Matter movement as a way to bolster their progressive credibility. The problem with this is that when it comes to actual education policy, the NEA-AFT positions and tactics are anything but progressive. In fact, if we look at their behavior, it’s remarkably similar to the NRA. Which should tell us something.

For example:

1) Both the NRA and teachers’ unions use a classic bait and switch to divert blame after bad news.

After mass shootings, the NRA now blames mental illness  and calls for better mental health services.

After the latest round of dismal reading and math scores, the NEA and AFT blame poverty and call for more social services.

It sounds noble because mental health does matters as does poverty. But by immediately pivoting to bigger social issues, both the NRA and the NEA-AFT are saying, “Look over there! Away from the policies we actually have the power to change! You people go work on these other big things and leave us alone.”

The truth is we don’t have to choose between better mental health care and gun control or better social services and schools that actually work for their students. We can have both.

2) Both try to block federal and state agencies from collecting or using data that make them look bad. 

The NRA has long blocked federal research into gun injuries and death while trying to limiting access to databases about gun ownership.

The teachers’ unions are now trying to roll back federal accountability requirements and block states or districts from using test data to demand any changes in school staffing or design.

Both groups do this under the language of states’ rights and local control. Which should be a red flag for progressives.

3) Both represent members who are mostly white and both defend a status quo in which white people have far more freedom and choice even as black people are disproportionately harmed.  

At some point, we really need to call NRA’s right-to-bear arms what it is: White Dudes’ Freedom to Carry. Remember the gang of white guys who casually carried their assault rifles into Target and bought Oreos?

There’s a reason why black men don’t try these stunts. Because they’ll be killed. Last year, Ohio police gunned down John Crawford, who had casually picked an air rifle off the shelf while shopping at Wal-Mart and talking on his cell phone. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by police within seconds for playing with a toy gun at a Cleveland park.

Over all, black Americans are twice as likely to die from gun violence than whites. The burden of living in a country awash with guns is twice as deadly for them.

On the school front, unions hold up traditional district schools as the ideal model, saying they are free and open to all. But access to good schools mostly depends on where you live and under our current system of “school choice by mortgage,” white children are far more likely to attend effective schools than children of color.

Last year in the Vergara vs. California case, a judge ruled that the union’s tenure and seniority rules put ineffective teachers in front of children of color at grossly disproportionate rates. “The evidence is compelling. It shocks the conscience,” wrote the judge in decision the teachers’ union denounced as “anti-union” and “anti-teacher.”

And these are just three examples.

Look, I know I keep harping on this. But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck….if the teachers’ unions behave like Christian fundamentalists, if they do politics like the NRA, if their policies lead to highly racialized outcomes…..well, these are all signs that we are not dealing with a progressive outfit or agenda, despite all their social justice speeches and political donations.

Why should this matter to progressive Democrats?

When it comes to mass shootings, many of us hold the NRA and Republicans politically responsible for the endless carnage because they refuse to change our laws no matter how many die.

When it comes to schools that systematically fail children of color, it’s the people from our political tribe—the NEA, AFT and elected Democrats who protect the status quo, even as we lose generation upon generation of bright young minds.

We need to get our heads straight and hold them accountable



Lynnell Mickelsen is an education activist and blogger in Minneapolis. She writes at



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