How to Be a Central Actor in the Education Debate

Education policy in the United States has enjoyed two central actors in the past century — first the Teachers’ Front Organizations, and more recently the Federal-Academic Complex. The Teachers Front Organizations include the American Federation of Teachers (“AFT”) labor union, the National Education Association (“NEA”) labor union, the National Parent-Teacher Association (“your school’s PTA”), school boards who membership is influenced by teacher turn-out, and so on. The Federal-Academic Complex is composed of major research universities, the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, large charitable trusts, and so on.

The Central Actor — whether as in the past Teachers Front Organizations, or as now the Federal-Academic Complex — is a bank. Actors that are more narrowly focused will trade the resources they have to the Central Actor in order to gain more of the resource they most prize.

In the past, when Teachers Front Organizations were the Central Actor, and all dimensions of force focused on them. Publishers used their political power to flatter teacher-controlled school boards to sell their books, parents paid taxes to teacher-run schools to take care of their children, and State politicians gave control of childcare o teacher organizations to secure their own elections. Teacher Front Organizations easily converted money, power, and childcare, and used canny trades to increase their money, power, and control over children.

Now, that the Federal-Academic Complex is the Central Actor, all these processes still occur — but the Federal-Academic Complex, not the Teacher Front Organizations, benefit. It is impossible to search online or read twitter without encountering howls of pain and anguish from teachers, who correctly see that their power is being eviscerated and that bureaucrats, scientists, do-gooders, and academics are enjoying the rewards that used to be theirs. Worse, from the stand-point of teachers, teacher welfare has gone from being one of the objectives of the Central Actor to a thing that can be bargained away. It is hard to imagine publishers gaining enough leverage over the Teacher Front Organizations to divert a significant amount of money away from teachers and to themselves. It trivially easy to imagine Publishers trading that much power to the Federal-Academic Complex to divert money away from teachers and to themselves.

One reason for the current weakness of teachers is the lobotomy of low wages, but of course low wages don’t just happen — they were caused. Specifically, the rise of the Federal-Academic Complex and the fall of Teachers Front Organizations is the result of a broader trend: the dismantling of democracy in the United States that began in the 1930s under President Roosevelt.

In same ways, this was a good thing. I’ve previously written that the military-industrial complex keeps the world safe from American democracy, and in the education reform debate I am more sympathetic to the Federal-Academic Complex than to what is left of the Teachers Front Organizations. But it is undeniable that the ability of “bottom-up” teachers organizations to control education policy in the United States was eventually killed by the “top-down” tendencies of the Federal Bureaucracy. Step-by-step the Teachers Front Organizations allowed the Federal-Academic Complex to aggrandize itself, not realizing its threat as a top-down competitor and instead just treating it as another weak partner, ripe for parasitism.

In order to be a Central Actor, you need to things: the ability to act as bank for more narrow-minded actors, and the possession of a politically-feasible foundation. The Teachers Front Organizations, formerly diverse and uniquely suited to local American democracy, used to possess these attributes. The Federal-Academic Complex, diverse and unique suited to the commanding heights of the American economy, now possesses them, instead.