It was the term "teach-in" in the announcement from the Emergency Coalition Against Vouchers that first grabbed my attention. As a Berkeley graduate student 30-plus years ago, I was one of the organizers of what may have been the first teach-in against the Vietnam War. In those days, the war party still commanded the country's major institutions-the media, the White House and Congress, and most universities. The idea behind the teach-in was that we, the "prophetic minority," would elect ourselves as a kind of counter-academy in order to bring suppressed truths about the war to the student masses.
New York's self-styled anti-voucher coalition can name itself anything it wants, but calling the rally it held at NYU on May 20 a teach-in was almost Orwellian. Despite the nostalgic references to the sixties, this event was the antithesis of insurgency. Just between the United Federation of Teachers president, Randi Weingarten, and the State Assembly Education Committee chairman, Steve Sanders, there was more than enough institutional power to preserve the education status quo. (Among the major organizations on hand: the American Federation of Teachers, Columbia Teachers College, the NYCLU, People for the American Way, and the American Jewish Committee.)
Nor were Weingarten and Sanders shy about flexing muscle. No matter what parents and the public might want, they let the audience know, they had the political clout to block even a tiny experimental voucher plan. Sanders assured the audience that even in the unlikely event that the City Council, the Board of Education, and the State Legislature approved vouchers, it wouldn't happen "in my lifetime and in your lifetime." The reason? The state constitution has an amendment that bars taxpayer money from directly or indirectly aiding parochial schools. The East Side assemblyman didn't inform the audience that his constitutional trump card, the "Blaine Amendment," was the outgrowth of an orgy of nativism and anti-Catholic religious bigotry (see "Yes, Vouchers Are Constitutional," Autumn 1998) that swept the country at the end of the nineteenth century.
Notwithstanding Sanders's guarantee that the constitution had settled the matter, some speakers at the rally did try to explain why vouchers would hurt New York and America. Diane Steinman, representing the American Jewish Committee, warned that if Mayor Giuliani had his way with vouchers it would lead to New York's "becoming a Third World city" and to "sectarian strife" à la Bosnia. (Steinman didn't say how many AJC trustees sent their kids to public schools in order to preserve our common American heritage.) The Reverend Peter Laarman of the Judson Memorial Church proposed that the push for school vouchers was just a part of the 30-year war the political right had been conducting to privatize public services-all to accomplish the "transfer of wealth" from the poor to the rich. Bella Rosenberg, an American Federation of Teachers official, let the audience in on the teachers' union's latest oppositional research. Among the nefarious right-wing organizations and characters lurking around the voucher movement: the Christian Coalition, Michael Milken-even the ubiquitous Kenneth Starr.
You get the picture. The people who want to liberate black children from failing inner-city schools are a bunch of reactionaries. Those who want to bar the schoolhouse door and keep kids locked in-using a nineteenth-century bigots' law-are caring progressives. I accept that we can't do much about the anti-voucher coalition's political rhetoric. I just wish they'd stop stealing my cherished teach-in.