In What Must Be “Opposite Day” Satire, the Century Foundation Senior Fellow Weighs In on Friedrichs v. CTA

Although Richard Kahlenberg is an acclaimed progressive scholar, I had no idea of his wicked brilliance until I read his recent 5000-word opinion piece on the Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. CTA. At first, I thought he was defending the respondents, the California Teachers Association. But as I read his column, I realized that every single point he made was the opposite of reality — often in ways that would be obvious to a well-read high-school student, let alone a Century Foundation Senior Fellow.

Suddenly, it dawned on me that Kahlenberg was engaging in devilishly clever satire.

By setting forth the criteria by which the Friedrichs case should be judged, and then using “opposite day” logic, he was subversively making the strongest possible case for Rebecca Friedrichs. Since his prose is so sincere and subtle, I almost missed it. This column is a public service for those of us who are literal-minded enough to want the actual facts associated with each element of Kahlenberg’s framework.

“A Check On Government Power”

In his best laugh-out-loud moment, Kahlenberg writes that public sector unions serve as “a check on government power.” Unfortunately, it’s gallows humor, as (1) public unions depend upon government expansion for members, money, and power, and (2) they often prolong the careers of abusive employees. The straight, unfunny truth:

  • Public sector unions have put hundreds of thousands behind bars. The books The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (2014) and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) explained how America’s uniquely aggressive prison-building binge since the 1980s had nothing to do with crime rates, and was devastating for individual rights and African American communities. In the book The Toughest Beat (2011), the University of Minnesota’s Joshua Page shows how public sector prison guard unions such as the California Correctional Peace Officers Association played a leading role in prison-building trends such as the “Three Strikes” movement.
  • Public sector unions have promoted police brutality. The Atlantic has explained how police unions have kept abusive cops on the streets. Quoting that magazine:

There are, of course, police officers who are fired for egregious misbehavior. Yet all over the U.S., police unions help many of those cops to get their jobs back, often via secretive appeals geared to protect labor rights rather than public safety. Cops deemed unqualified by their own bosses are put back on the streets. Their colleagues get the message that police all but impervious to termination.

“Schools for Democracy”

Another Kahlenberg headline, that public unions are “Schools for Democracy,” is doubly satirical. The teachers unions are well-known to be antidemocratic as both models and actors.

  • Only a small percentage of teachers, roughly 20% and often less, actually vote in internal union elections;
  • Teachers use their political power to push for school board elections to be off-cycle from high-turnout elections, depressing voter engagement so as to ensure their members’ influence over school boards;
  • The unions promulgate codes of conduct, pushing their members not to criticize union stances and often bullying pro-reform teachers;
  • The California Teachers Association, in particular, is known as the 800-pound gorilla of Sacramento, bullying legislators and other interest groups.

See what Kahlenberg did there, by calling them “Schools for Democracy,” when the unions produce terrible results for democracy? They are bad schools! Get it? This guy is a genius.

“A Strong Middle Class”

Kahlenberg writes a section claiming that public sector unions promote economic equality. In this section, his trick is to ignore the difference between public and private sector unions. To be sure, private sector unions are important for wages and general economic equality, but the growth of public sector unions has demonstrably harmed both private sector labor and the working poor that make up the lower-middle class.

It is true that members of the teachers unions do comparatively well, but Kahlenberg’s satire on this point derives from the reason they do so. As Kahlenberg knows, the teachers unions represent professionals who are over 80% white, 100% employed, and whose median income is roughly double that of the median worker in the United States. By draining labor organizing resources from more genuinely blue-collar professions, they’ve damaged the cause of labor.

“Well-Educated Citizens”

Kahlenberg makes a straight “opposite day” jape by claiming that unions create well-educated citizens. For this claim, Kalhenberg cites University of Louisville sociologist Bob Carini, who mostly studies topics such as aging and leisure, but who once (in 2002) did a survey of 17 studies of unions and school performance. Carini’s paper has strengths and weaknesses, as do the underlying papers he surveys, but three facts stand out. First, none of Carini’s underlying 17 studies robustly consider the long-term, time-lagged influence of unions on schools. Leading union criticisms, such as the 2011 book Special Interest by Stanford University’s Terry Moe, argue that unions damage student performance over time (not immediately) through anti-student contracts and politics. Second, Carini’s underlying studies also fail to consider the counter-claim that unions are a dependent rather than an independent variable. This counter-claim, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, is that household wealth generates better student results, but ALSO leads to higher public spending, which then attracts union organizers. Thus, unions show up as results improve, but do not cause it. Third, even Carini’s pro-union review acknowledges that unions damage the prospects of the lowest-achieving students.

Kahlenberg’s satirical humor on this point may seem wonky, but it’s black comedy when you consider the context. Substantial and enduring majorities of non white parents want more school choice, such as charter schools and vouchers. These non white parents provide most students who attend public schools: unlike the teachers unions members, the average public school family is non white. This is especially true in urban areas, where public school parents also tend to have below-average incomes. The teachers unions use their political muscle to block choices by such families, even as many public school teachers use their white-collar income to send their own children to private schools.

To make these points concrete, many jurisdictions with low-achieving students have resisted teachers union lobbying. These jurisdictions, such as Washington DC, New York City, New Orleans, Florida, and Tennessee, have seen rapid gains in student performance. Many more jurisdictions with similar demographics would be able to enact such pro-student policies if Rebecca Friedrichs prevails. Thus, the union position directly threatens the prospects for our least-advantaged children to become “well-educated citizens.”

The Unions After Friedrichs

Kahlenberg’s final piece of comedy reviews the various amicus briefs regarding the future of unions if Rebecca Friedrichs prevails. Kahlenberg notes that about 34 percent of teachers would not choose to pay fees.

Of course, this is actually an argument in favor of the petitioners in the Friedrichs v. CTA case. Today, the public sector demands compulsory dues from a third of teachers who would not choose to pay it. Given how much Kahlenberg and the unions value democracy, in truth they must really want the unions to have to adapt their views and services to better appeal to those disaffected teachers. In such a future, the pro-student and pro-reform teachers who currently feel bullied and boxed out of the unions, and who don’t vote in union elections, would have much greater voice. That is the kind of professional association, like the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association, which will truly raise the status of its members.


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