Alfonse D’Amato is running his mouth about schoolteachers again. He’s been attacking the teachers and their “liberal” union for months now, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to air an early re-election commercial with that same theme, and even inserting himself into the city’s mayoral campaign for a day or two.
This approach seems to be serving him well, if recent polls are to be believed. Since his teacher-bashing commercials began to appear, his approval ratings have climbed to around 40 percent, a figure that would terrify most elected officials but delights New York’s junior Senator, who is used to languishing 20 points lower. Aside from fund raising, his greatest skill is reading survey data and acting in accord with its findings: Newt Gingrich is unpopular, so Mr. D’Amato has attacked him. Breast cancer is unpopular, too, and Mr. D’Amato is against it. Gold-hoarding Nazis are very unpopular, and we know how he feels about them. Preserving the environment is popular, so although his voting record is terrible, he has aired commercials proving that he really cares.
Although these exercises in statesmanship arrested his own plunging poll numbers, the Senator needed another issue to make him sound courageous, concerned and tough. The teachers were unlikely to support him, anyway, and after years of journalistic propaganda against them, they are sufficiently vulnerable to offer a barnlike target.
When politicians descend to demagoguery, they often choose issues for which they have no specific responsibility. Like a candidate for mayor who demands the death penalty or declares war on a foreign despot, the Senator has demanded changes in education which are wholly the province of other branches of government.
He says that teachers should be paid on the basis of merit, though he has yet to suggest how this would be accomplished. (Maybe he should be paid according to merit, too. How much should his salary be reduced for the transgressions that resulted in a costly probe by the Senate Ethics Committee?) He wants to modify or abolish teacher tenure (but he enjoys all the benefits of incumbency and opposes the campaign finance reform measures that would reduce them). “Our children should be taught by the best,” he proclaimed in a letter to the Daily News -yet he has never addressed the fact that teachers are paid less than any other professionals with similar levels of education, and, in fact, he has consistently voted for funding cutbacks at the Federal level that have made those disparities worse.
Until quite recently, in fact, he has displayed almost no interest in any of these problems. As the head of the New York School Boards Association noted delicately, “D’Amato has not been all that active in education.”
Anyone who searches the Senator’s official Web site for evidence of his pedagogical concerns will come away frustrated. Topics from the Frank Sinatra gold medal and the Jackie Robinson coin to the Northern Ireland free trade zone and Year 2000 computer problems are covered in depth, but the only reference to education is his co-sponsorship of a bill introduced by another Senator to consolidate Federal grants. That seems to have been his only gesture toward the schools during the current Congress, although he has co-sponsored at least 195 pieces of legislation since 1996, dealing with such pressing matters as duty relief on viscose rayon, excise taxes on draft cider and capital gains levies on the sale of livestock.
It would be unfair, however, to suggest that he has done nothing whatsoever for learning. In addition to a bill promoting charter schools, another local matter, Mr. D’Amato is listed as a co-sponsor of cutting-edge resolutions on National Literacy Day and National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week. Meanwhile, over the course of a Senate career that dates back to 1981, he has consistently voted to slash funding for programs that provide Federal funding for academic improvement, such as Head Start and student loans.
Before he continues his tirade against teachers, perhaps he ought to try doing their job. If he did, he would discover that they work in dingy, dilapidated buildings that lack adequate equipment and supplies; that they often pay for books and materials out of their own pockets; and that too frequently they must cope with children who are undernourished, unloved and thus unteachable. In places where no unions exist to protect teachers, their wages and conditions are even worse. It is easy to imagine how much more vulnerable they would be to the mercies of small-time politicians if, as Mr. D’Amato seems to wish, they had no organized defense. They might well feel obliged to cough up 1 percent of their salaries to the local political organization, as public employees were required to do annually by the Nassau County Republican machine that nurtured the Senator’s early career.
That old system of extortion may offer a clue for the teachers about how best to respond to the Senator’s assaults. Instead of debating him, they could try writing a generous check to the Friends of Al D’Amato. No doubt that would make them worthy of respect, even affection. It works for crooked stockbrokers and defense contractors, doesn’t it?