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Interview with Richard Kahlenberg, author of Tough Liberal (September, 2007)

Richard Kahlenberg, author of Tough Liberal and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and DemocracyIn the words of Columbia University professor Alan Brinkley, Richard Kahlenberg's biography of Albert Shanker, "reveals the complexity of Shanker's life and career and also makes a persuasive case for his greatness." In this interview Kahlenberg discusses his new book Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy and the continuing importance of Albert Shanker

Question: Who was Albert Shanker and why is he important?

Richard Kahlenberg: Most people would love to do one big thing in life: Albert Shanker did three. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a founding father of modern teacher unionism and built teacher unions into a powerful force in education locally in New York City and then nationwide. In the 1980s and 1990s, he went further and became the leading education reformer of the last half of the 20th century. Throughout his life, he was also a combatant and spokesperson for a unique political philosophy—what I call "tough liberalism"—which Democrats could certainly use these days.

Q: Why did Al Shanker build the United Federation of Teachers in New York City?

RK: Shanker became "the George Washington of the teaching profession" because he saw firsthand how teachers were mistreated and wanted to improve their lot. When Shanker began, teachers were paid less than those who washed cars for a living and were required to supervise kids while they ate lunch. Although it was illegal for teachers to strike, Shanker and others, drawing on the civil rights movement, argued that sometimes you needed to break bad laws for a good cause. Shanker himself landed in jail twice in the 1960s for leading illegal strikes.

Q: Didn't Shanker create a monstera powerful group that would come to resist sensible education reforms?

RK: Al Shanker recognized that, over time, as teacher union power grew, they were sometimes perceived as putting their own interests before those of kids. But in the 1980s and 1990s, Shanker reinvented the role of teacher union leader and became the leading education reformer in the United States. He was a font of ideas, and in speeches and his well known "Where We Stand" column appearing in the New York Times, he churned out a host of innovative policy ideas. He was a champion of the standards-based reform movement, the author of a teacher-led charter school initiative, and proponent of a controversial system of "peer review" to weed out inadequate teachers. Likewise, Shanker forged a compromise on the divisive "merit pay" issue, proposing what would become the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which allows for greater pay for highly accomplished board-certified teachers. In short, he was, in the words of journalist Sara Mosle, "our Dewey."

Q: What do you mean when you say Shanker was a "Tough Liberal"?

RK: Al Shanker was a strong liberal, who believed in unions and public schools as a way of promoting greater equity and social mobility in America. But at the same time, he was a realist about the way the world works, and he took more "conservative" positions on issues like racial quotas, school discipline, and national defense. Speaking at Shanker's memorial service, President Bill Clinton remarked, "Al Shanker would say something on one day that would delight liberals and infuriate conservatives. The next day, he would make conservatives ecstatic and the liberals would be infuriated." But there was something that bound together his seemingly disparate views: a profound commitment to democracy. Unions and public schools were important democratic institutions to Shanker, but so was a commitment to treating people of different races by the same measuring stick, and so was having the capacity to fight totalitarians on both the Left and Right. Whereas liberals today are often accused of not knowing what they stand for, Al Shanker knew: political and economic democracy.