The Moral Panic over Activist Teachers Wildly Overstates' Teachers' PowerRoundup
tags: Florida, teaching history, Ron DeSantis, Moral Panic
Diana D'Amico Pawlewicz is a historian of education policy at the University of North Dakota, a Visiting Scholar at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond and an editor of Made by History. She is the author of Blaming Teachers: Professionalization Policies and the Failure of Reform in American History.
When Oklahoma teacher Summer Boismier sent her students a QR code that gave them access to banned books through the Brooklyn Public Library, Ryan Walters, the state’s Republican secretary of education, tweeted, “There is no place for a teacher with a liberal political agenda in the classroom” and demanded that her teacher’s license be revoked. In Chesterfield County, Va., teachers must sign a pledge before they enroll in any professional development, vowing that critical race theory will not be covered. These moves are an effort to address conservatives’ alarm that public school teachers — armed with tenure and unbridled academic freedom — are a danger to children.
Fears like these have filtered through the nation’s public schools for more than a century. But calls for control over teachers are manufactured political myths designed to animate voters and preserve bureaucratic and inequitable status quos. In reality, American public school teachers have neither the sort of tenure protection critics fear nor the academic freedom.
As early as the 1880s, teachers in municipally supported public school systems began to press for tenure. This women-dominated corps of workers faced dismissals without cause, and they had to reapply for their positions each year. In this early vision, all teachers wanted was stability and due process. Even so, school leaders denounced the proposition as preposterous. Baltimore’s commissioner of education dismissed teachers as “foolish,” and a superintendent from one Massachusetts district argued that the instability teachers faced functioned as a useful “spur that helps keep them up with the times.”
By the close of the 19th century, however, education policymakers began to see the issue differently. School systems were growing. Not only were districts rehiring teachers each year, but high rates of teacher turnover meant that they were locked in a constant cycle of recruitment and training. Cast in this light, tenure represented a pathway to bureaucratic efficiency and stability.
Within a decade, tenure had become widespread, but it didn’t involve academic freedom. Rather in most places it just meant that teachers could not be dismissed without cause and deserved due process. Even with this new protection, teachers continued to lose their jobs for a range of reasons, including getting married, having children, disagreeing with supervisors, pressing for social justice and teaching divisive topics.
In 1915, the American Association of University Professors adopted its “Declaration of Principles” in which the organization argued that tenure and academic freedom were essential to professors’ ability to “rightly render [their] distinctive and indispensable service to society.” Leaders in the newly formed American Federation of Teachers hoped this framing would apply to public school teachers as well, but they immediately met resistance.
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