At the podium in an Oklahoma City banquet room filled with 400 school board members and superintendents from the nation's largest cities, Albert Shanker is charging headlong into his favorite topic. The longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers rocks on his toes. His fingers dance in the air. One minute, he folds his hands over his spreading paunch. The next minute, he shakes them gently, as if he were sprinkling ideas like drops from a cloud. But to those gathered before him, it feels like a storm coming on.
"What the hell is he talking about?" Waldemar Rojas, head of the San Francisco Unified School District, mutters to his table mates.
American public education is a crumbling domain, Shanker is saying, and urban schools like those Rojas oversees are in the deepest trouble. The voucher movement is growing, Shanker says, his arms extended, because schools have gone soft on students who chronically disrupt class. "We have to remove these youngsters from regular classrooms."
There's more: Schools need to separate students by ability. American schools would be better off if they emulated the tracking systems used in many European countries, which establish different but demanding requirements depending on whether a student is bound for college, trade school or work. "Even though it sounds very undemocratic," Shanker intones in his trademark baritone, "it is the only thing that works."
Rojas and his table mates--all members of the Council of Great City Schools, a national organization of top managers and policymakers from the nation's 49 largest school districts--are visibly disturbed. "When we were growing up, we knew what that meant," Rojas huffs to two colleagues at his table, Bill Anton, former Los Angeles Unified superintendent, and Ron Prescott, an African American who is that district's chief lobbyist. "It meant we got to go to vocational school and everyone else got to go to college."
Shanker is saying nothing in Oklahoma City that he hasn't said scores of times, whether on the stump or in his column, which has run nearly every week for 26 years as a paid advertisement in the New York Times. Public education is in crisis, his message goes, and we'd better change course or witness its sure demise.
This brand of plain talk about public schools has transformed Shanker's identity. In 1968, he vaulted to national prominence as a hard-line--and hated--union leader who led New York City teachers in three racially divisive strikes. (His actions earned him semi-immortalization as the madman who destroyed civilization in the 1973 Woody Allen film, "Sleeper.") These days, though, he is more often referred to as an educational philosopher and a statesman of reform--"a national public intellectual who shapes the education debate," in the words of Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University.
Although he leads the smaller of the two national teachers unions--with 2.2 million members, the National Education Assn. is more than twice as large--it is Shanker who holds center stage as the country's leading spokesman for teachers. Gifted with a folksy eloquence and a sharp tongue, he has spent most of the past two decades pouring out a steady stream of provocative ideas. Many of them have already altered the landscape of public education, from charter schools--now a reality in 25 states--to national certification of teachers through the 9-year-old National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The earliest and loudest voice for establishing and raising universal curriculum standards, he has helped spawn efforts in 48 states to draft goals for student achievement.
To many in Oklahoma City, though, he is no longer the tribune for progressive reform. "We were all just shocked," says Prescott. "I saw him as an advocate of poor and minority children. I didn't hear that today." After the speech, the Council of Great City Schools sent Shanker a scathing letter denouncing his call for tougher discipline as a "national campaign of exclusion" and slamming his proposal for a new form of student tracking as "a slide backward to 'separate but equal.' "
Witheringly brutal, Shanker returned the fire, accusing the council of outrageous distortions and blasting its attempt to smear him as a racist. Citing opinion polls showing that discipline is a top concern for teachers and the public, he charged that the council, like most American educators, is more concerned with being politically correct than educationally sound.
The volley of charges and countercharges went on for weeks--it was the kind of intellectual brawl Shanker relishes but has less energy for now. Found to have lung cancer eight months ago, he is battling cancer for the second time in as many years, and the questions that he has always generated have suddenly become more urgent. With talk of his union merging with the NEA, how long can he remain a commanding voice for education reform? By etching a dismal profile of the achievements of American students, has he doomed his own hopes for change? Most important, what will be his legacy? Will he be remembered as a visionary or a reactionary?
"I find Al quite a puzzlement," says Gerald Bracey, a Washington education consultant who once agreed with Shanker as ardently as he now disagrees with him. By ignoring the substantial accomplishments of U.S. schools, Bracey believes, Shanker has turned into a mere doomsayer who perpetuates the popular myth that public education is an unadulterated failure. "He's saying things that are simply not true," says Bracey, who refutes Shanker's broad-brush denigration of American students as the academic laggards of the industrialized world. "He's like a drowning man grabbing at flotsam."
"He has aligned himself with conservative forces," says David Berliner, author of "The Manufactured Crisis," an examination of Americans' proclivity to believe the worst about public schools. "It's not our advantaged kids who are lagging, but it's the disadvantaged who are suffering from the current system. Shanker once had compassion for those kids."
The union leader scoffs at such analyses. America's schools don't work, and no reform scheme will save them if they coddle unruly students and if they lack common--and challenging--academic standards. People like Bracey and Berliner, he says, ignore the way things are. He, on the other hand, sees virtue in honesty, no matter how scorching. "Why should anyone want to change anything if everything is wonderful?" says Shanker, girding himself for what may be his last campaign.
At 6 foot 3, Al Shanker fills the the doorway of his New York City apartment, despite his permanent slouch. He stands in his stocking feet, wearing gray trousers and a worn dress shirt. Although a high fever had sent him to the hospital just the week before, he's looking better than he did two months earlier at the August AFT convention in Cincinnati, when he was so frail that he was transported around the cavernous hall in an electric cart and had lost all his hair.
Now a gray-white stubble is sprouting on his head, and some of the color has returned to his famously droopy face. Despite the ravages of cancer, chemotherapy and age, it is still the face that stares out at millions of New York Times readers each Sunday--the lines are deeper, the eyes sag a bit more, but the mien is thoughtful, the gaze still focused.
In a corner of a modestly furnished living room, Shanker, who just turned 68, settles into an easy chair. His wife of 35 years, Eadie, a former teacher and college administrator, pops in, bearing dishes of jelly beans and hard candies (an antidote for the dry mouth that chemo can cause), coffee and juice. She fills Shanker's silences with small talk--a good play to see, a new exhibit in town.
The entire wall next to Shanker is stacked with records and CDs, from Wagner to Thelonious Monk. CDs, sniffs Shanker, are no match for a good LP, of which he owns thousands. He loves to go on scavenging trips through Salvation Army stores. An inveterate bargain hunter, he orders half a dozen suits at a time--size 46 extra long--every four or five years, from the Hart Schaffner & Marx factory in Chicago.
"He collects everything," Eadie says. His books on cooking take up more shelf space than those on education; he has at least 25 tomes on baking alone. In the kitchen of the Shankers' second home on the Long Island Sound is a Hobart mixer, a bulky, industrial-size machine that can make 13 loaves at once--these days he specializes in olive bread and, just to prove a point to a colleague, once made pepper-flecked chocolate biscotti. Ravitch recalls the time he made Moroccan pigeon pie ("excellent"), which he served while wearing a caftan.
"He's such a character," says Denis Doyle, a writer and visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. He has known Shanker for 25 years and is still awed, even unnerved, by his intellectual energy. "His typical posture is to read a magazine, take a phone call, fiddle with the stereo, glance at a cookbook, all while having conversation with you. He can be extremely odd and disconcerting," continues Doyle, who at various times has been an adversary as well as an ally. "He makes you feel like an idiot that he can do this."
In a career that has caromed right and left and right again, Shanker has always aroused extreme reactions, from condemnation to reverence. People love to theorize about him.
"There are times when I think he's one of the most liberal people I've ever talked to and times when I think he is one of the most conservative. And I always wonder which Shanker I am going to [get]," says former NEA president Keith Geiger, whose close friendship with Shanker began seven years ago when Geiger headed up the rival union. "I say that with awe. None of what I'm saying is said critically. I just think he is very, very difficult to figure."
There are at least three schools of thought about Al Shanker.
The first says he has become more conservative and fearful the older he's become. Now that he faces the prospect of dying of cancer, he has taken up even more regressive stands, such as law and order in the classroom. "I think the world has passed him by," says James Williams, the school superintendent in Dayton, Ohio.
The second school of thought says that Shanker has always been expedient. This explains how a man who proudly joined the civil rights struggles in Selma and Montgomery could, a few years later, become a symbol of middle-class whites'--and especially Jews'--distrust of black power. And it explains his current obsession with discipline and higher standards.
"He goes where the power is--and the power is clearly with the right," says consultant Bracey. "Albert Shanker," says an admiring Chester Finn, an assistant education secretary in the Reagan administration who's now a fellow at the Hudson Institute, "is a gifted reader of political entrails."
The third view is that Shanker is a genuine freethinker, unfettered by ideology, unafraid to change his mind if the evidence warrants it. This view makes sense of his transformation from despised, obstreperous unionist, ready to shut down New York City schools for weeks at a time, to amicable ambassador of school reform, invited to every big summit on what ails the nation's schools.
"He is extremely independent," says Ravitch, who has known Shanker for more than 20 years, "and extremely sensible. That's unusual for a union leader."
Listening to descriptions of his apparent contradictions--and the various labels attached to them--Shanker says, "I don't know where this gets you." In his mind, there is no mystery in what he stands for. He is a Hubert Humphrey-Scoop Jackson liberal. A staunch anti-communist. A pragmatist. A student of John Dewey and William James. Sure, he has changed his mind over the years on important issues. The driving force, though, isn't Machiavellian, just common sense.
"If I come to believe that something just isn't going to work, I am not going to ritualistically stick with that," he says. "When you've got something that doesn't work and you defend it no matter what, then it's only a matter of time before the opposition comes in and blows it up."
No event would test Shanker's flexibility--his ability to rethink deeply held assumptions and change the course of his profession--more than the one that began at 4 o'clock on the afternoon of April 26, 1983, in the White House Rose Garden. The National Commission on Excellence in Education--an 18-member panel that included the president of Yale University, a Nobel laureate, a former governor and a retired business magnate--released "A Nation at Risk."
Shanker, who had been AFT's national president for almost a decade, was in meetings all day at the group's Washington headquarters. He was prepared to dismiss the report as political handiwork of the Reagan administration. "It's going to be tuition tax credits, vouchers, privatization," Shanker fretted at the time, "and a big hit on teachers." He couldn't have been more wrong.
The product of two years of hearings, the report offered a devastating view of American education. Educators had lost sight of the academic mission of schools, the panel charged, allowing students to pick curricular frills, such as courses in bachelor living, over staples such as math and science. Colleges were producing teachers who knew too little about their assigned subjects. A school year that was as much as 40 days shorter than those in many European countries was leaving American students chronically behind.
The result was that the United States was dead last in seven international comparisons, with high school scores on standardized tests lower than when Sputnik was launched over 25 years earlier. The nation, concluded the panel, had been engaged in "unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament," resulting in mediocrity so profound that if it had been imposed by an unfriendly foreign power, "we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
It recommended, among other measures, toughening high school graduation requirements and lengthening the school day. Harshly criticizing teacher quality, the study also endorsed a salary schedule that smacked of merit pay, a concept that was anathema to the unions.
The NEA assailed "A Nation at Risk" immediately. But Shanker had a different response. Whether acting with foresight or merely shifting with the winds, Shanker seized the report as an opportunity to remold teachers unions. He believed that, like none of the previous blue-ribbon reports bemoaning the state of American education, this one would change the national conversation. If the forces arrayed behind "A Nation at Risk" were willing to dance with us, he thought, then we had better join the party.
"Something brand new is happening," he told hundreds of New York state teachers just a few days later. Teachers, he warned, had better take notice. The Reagan commission had not endorsed privatization, vouchers--which enable parents to use public funds to pay for private education--or other mechanisms aimed at dismantling public schools; on the contrary, it was saying that public schools were worth saving. Shanker's message: Grab on to this report. Sit down with these business leaders, governors and scholars and have an intelligent discussion of the proposals. Tell them what you don't like, but be open to what might work.
Shanker, his hands resting on his belly, chortles at the memory. "That doesn't sound like much now, to say, 'Be friendly, sit down and engage these people.' But that was pretty radical at the time," he says. "The idea was, 'Here was Shanker, he went to jail twice, he led all these strikes--he should be throwing bombs at these people.' But I didn't see it that way at all. I just saw it as this gift."
Over the next few years, Shanker took stands that would rile members of his union as well as the NEA. He began to talk about merit pay, saying that while many forms of it would be bad for the teaching profession, some might be good. The NEA opposed any form of merit pay, reasserting its "unalterable opposition" to any plan that did not provide across-the-board salary increases to all teachers. In 1985, Shanker called the media to the National Press Club in Washington, where he issued a blunt call to his profession to lift its standards through a national teacher examination.
His speeches and other public remarks through this period would provide historians with a clear marker, says Claremont Graduate School Professor Charles Kerchner. They signaled Shanker's "explicit departure from the ranks of industrial unionism." And they cemented the once-militant labor leader's claim to a new role: statesman.
Asked to name the three turning points in his life, Al Shanker will mention how he helped New York City teachers gain collective bargaining rights in 1961. Then he'll mention how he saved the city from bankruptcy in 1975. And finally, he'll mention participating in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
What he doesn't mention is Ocean Hill-Brownsville--the teachers' strikes he led in 1968, which are still remembered as one of the ugliest moments in New York City history. When this is pointed out, though, Shanker doesn't flinch. "It certainly was very important," he says. "But collective bargaining was something we created." Ocean Hill-Brownsville, on the other hand, represented something that Shanker and his union tore apart.
Shanker is sitting up in his hospital room at Manhattan's Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center. He has checked in for four days to receive his "potion"--a new mix of drugs that the doctors hope will shrink his lung tumors. Right now, he's eyeing the door for some sign of a lunch tray. It's almost 1, and he's hungry. But he's also eager to talk. Meaningful details and anecdotes inform Shanker's life, and he draws on them freely.
There are the stories about the anti-Semitic slurs and beatings he endured as a child growing up on the Lower East Side during the Depression. Tales about the hardships suffered by his working-class immigrant parents, a sewing machine operator and a newspaper delivery man. Or--this is a favorite--the one about the autocratic assistant principal who barged into his classroom at P.S. 179, stretched his arm straight out and pointed accusingly at some balls of paper on the floor. "That, Mr. Shanker, is very unprofessional," he said--a line Shanker, straight-faced, repeats to great effect. But the events of '68 do not crop up in his conversation. They belong to another lifetime.
Shanker would argue the point, but the string of three walkouts he ordered as president of the New York City teachers union made his career. They turned the local union leader into a national symbol of teacher militancy. They also marked him as a racist, an accusation that still haunts him.
Listen to his adversaries from this period, and they'll tell you that he was easy to categorize. Shanker was a ruthless union partisan who played racial politics to increase his own power . . . Shanker destroyed New York City's glorious marriage of blacks, liberals and Jews . . . Old Albert, as one foe calls him, left a wound on the city that continues to fester. "He was the voice box through which a whole wave of people spoke--their fears came out of his mouth," says Lewis Feldstein, former assistant to then-Mayor John Lindsay. "He was speaking to the dark side."
On its face, the issue seemed simple: In apparent violation of due process, 19 teachers were summarily removed from their jobs in a Brooklyn district called Ocean Hill-Brownsville, one of three chosen citywide for an experiment in community control of the schools. The teachers were white, and the forces arrayed against them--local governing board, principals, parents and other community members--were black and Puerto Rican. Ocean Hill-Brownsville's superintendent, a black man named Rhody McCoy, said he ordered the teachers' transfers because they opposed the minority community's attempt to run its schools.
Shanker fought the transfers, insisting that the teachers were entitled to an impartial hearing on the charges, but McCoy would not back down. Eventually what turned out to be the first of three strikes was called. During the ensuing weeks and months, old loyalties were abandoned and the entire city took up sides. Jews were mad because Jewish teachers were losing their jobs. Blacks were mad because the largely white and Jewish union was blocking their efforts at self-governance. Parents and diehard liberals crossed picket lines, determined to keep schools from closing. Violence broke out on the lines, and hateful rhetoric dominated meetings between union officials and community members. Police sharpshooters ringed school rooftops, and Shanker, warned of a contract on his life, had state troopers for bodyguards.
Rockefeller Foundation President Peter Goldmark observed the events firsthand as a special assistant to the mayor. He remembers Shanker, then 39, as "a large figure," self-confident, tough and temperamental. "He was usually very well-prepared," Goldmark says, recalling negotiating sessions held at Gracie Mansion. It was a time of big passions, racial overtones, poor information and "inflamed constituencies that were essentially facing each other as antagonists for the first time. There was a scary sense of things being out of control." Goldmark believes that the strikes were as difficult and confusing for the union chief as they were for the other players.
His view is a generous one.
Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, was a leading advocate of community control and the father of three students in New York's public schools. Asked about Shanker's role in the tumult, he speaks with bile and passion, as if the events of 30 years ago happened only yesterday. One particular episode, he says, is all anyone needs to know.
It came about midway through the strife. Some anti-Semitic leaflets surfaced in the neighborhoods around Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools. Shanker claimed that they were the work of a black teachers association. So he had them reprinted and gave them wide circulation "to show everybody the kind of thing we were fighting against."
But Glasser believes the leaflets were the work of someone in the union. Whether Shanker knew about it--and Glasser doesn't think he did--the ACLU director considers the reprinting of the literature an inflammatory act in itself, done primarily to incite racial and religious animosities and build sympathy for the union's fight.
The payoff, in Glasser's view, was enormous. In November 1968, the last and most bruising strike ended after five weeks, with the union emerging victorious. Its members won stronger due process procedures as well as the right to return to their jobs. Shanker handily won reelection as local president, and that base of support helped propel him to the national AFT presidency several years later.
"It was a career-maker," Glasser says. "But it was a pact with the devil. [The strikes] left this city scarred by dividing precisely those constituencies--white and black, liberal and Jew--that had been together forever. That crack has never fully healed. That is something for which I have never forgiven him."
Hearing this mordant reading of his motives, Shanker gives the hospital linens a tight jerk. "Oh," he scoffs, "he wouldn't say that." Then, hearing more, he says, "Ira Glasser is what they used to call a limousine liberal. There is a certain type of liberalism that says, 'Look, we have done as a society a lot of horrible things to black people and now it's time that whatever they want, no matter how unreasonable it is, to make up for it.' Now I think the first part is right. We've done terrible things. But what you don't do to make up for it is establish a new sort of racist society. Civil rights is not connected to any particular group of people. And it is possible for minorities to be racist."
To anyone who would still think him a racist, Shanker offers a story of his own.
About six months after the last strike was settled, a collective bargaining election was held for 10,000 workers who were $1.70-an-hour aides in the city schools. Nearly all of the paraprofessionals were African Americans, and most were single mothers. They crossed the picket lines during the strikes and were called scabs by the union teachers.
A union representing municipal workers tried to woo them, in part by portraying the teachers union as a racist organization. Some teachers feared that too much bad blood had been spilled between them and the aides and were loath to put up a fight. But Shanker disagreed. He told his staff, "I want you to run a poster and I want this to be the central poster of the campaign. Run a picture of me and say, 'What he did for the teachers, he'll do for you.' " The posters went up.
Now comes the part of the story that Shanker likes most. There were two elections. The first one was tossed out after the municipal workers union had stuffed the ballot boxes. Weeks later, when the recount was in its final phase, it still didn't look good for the teachers union. They were 30 votes behind, with 400 ballots left to be tallied--all from Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Shanker, unsmiling, pauses. "They all voted for us."
In early 1970, Shanker met with an old friend, Arnold Beichman, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, over beers in a Manhattan chop house. In the two years since Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Shanker had become perhaps the most vilified public figure in the city. As one famous headline put it, "Is It Still OK to Hate Al Shanker?" The answer for most New Yorkers, it seemed, was yes.
Shanker's friends were appalled by a crude caricature that bore no resemblance to the man they knew--who was deeply committed to civil rights, who maintained a close and long-standing relationship with pioneer labor and civil rights leader Bayard Rustin (the only prominent black leader to support him during the strikes), who was erudite (he was on his way to get a PhD in philosophy from Columbia when he took his first teaching job) and articulate.
For Shanker, who had never cared about public relations, the attacks portended a deeper political problem. "If I'm constantly portrayed as a power-hungry person who loves to shut schools down," he thought, "that's going to have an effect on the willingness of people to support public schools. And it's going to be a very inaccurate picture of who I am."
He asked Beichman what he should do. He had already tried, and failed, to get himself on a national TV talk show. Even more discouraging, the New York Times had snubbed him, rejecting his offer to write a story for the Sunday magazine. He needed a forum for his educational views, but no one appeared interested in helping a hot-tempered union boss recast his image.
If you want space in the New York Times, Beichman told him, then buy it. But don't write union boilerplate. Don't preach about how wonderful you are. Make it newsy. Review books. Write about ideas. Above all, be yourself. "If I were a PR guy, I would have charged him $100,000 for that advice," says Beichman, now a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
In fact, $100,000 is exactly what the union paid the Times the first year for a choice spot inside its highly regarded Sunday Week in Review section. Twenty-six years later, the price has grown to $700,000. But, judging by the reactions of even Shanker's critics, it is money well spent. The column, called "Where We Stand," has made him one of the best-known union leaders in the country.
"Al's columns are very principled," says Jeanne Allen, president of the conservative Center for Education Reform in Washington. "He always has something very interesting to say."
"He is still a polemicist, but now he's a thoughtful polemicist. That comes out through the column more than anything else," says Nat Hentoff, a columnist at the Village Voice. "[He's been] putting out his ideas without shrieking. He should make a book out of those columns. They're worth arguing with."
People do argue about them--especially within the AFT. Unconstrained by the rules that inhibit other union presidents from espousing views that are not official policy, Shanker speaks his mind. "I have talked to AFT members who have said they just shuddered when they heard some things he said," says Geiger, the former NEA president. "At the same time I think the fact he has been president forever has allowed him to say things that some of the rest of us haven't said."
Local chapters of the AFT are free to ignore Shanker's ideas. But this autonomy is also the union's Achilles' heel. "The gap between what Al believes and the way his union acts--that is a big and important problem," says Finn of the Hudson Institute. "It's why I find it far easier to agree with Al than to admire the behavior of his organization."
Finn cites Shanker's stands on vouchers and charter schools as prime examples. During the past 15 years, Shanker has written columns daring private school advocates to limit vouchers to poor students who are failing in public school. Shanker also popularized charter schools. He held a national press conference to endorse the concept in 1988, then traveled around the country to talk it up at local and state AFT meetings.
Yet AFT locals have staunchly opposed broad voucher plans in cities such as Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C. Although Shanker says he remains a strong supporter of the charter idea--giving maximum flexibility to school staffs to make decisions that affect the quality of the education they provide--a recent AFT report sharply criticized the ways many states have implemented it.
Finn and others condemn those stands as typical union intransigence, but Shanker makes no apologies. On the battlefield of public education, he is a four-star general. What bolsters his authority is a willingness to shoot not only at the most obvious targets--choice and privatization proponents--but at fellow educators, too. He merrily debunks the educational fads of the day, whether New Age report cards that eschew letter grades ("the educational equivalent of the smiley face") or the widespread practice of promoting failing students to protect their self-esteem ("a lousy idea").
Some critics see his current focus on national academic standards as yet another exasperating twist in an ever-shifting agenda. But it is the logical product of an engaged, peripatetic mind. Examining the practices of other countries, Shanker saw the fallacy in his last big idea, school restructuring. The other countries, such as Japan, Germany and France, were outscoring the United States on international comparisons of educational achievement. But they weren't setting teachers loose to experiment with school governance. They were following a common curriculum and holding students accountable through high-stakes tests. Along with his call for stronger discipline codes, this emphasis on forging a national consensus about what all students should learn is an implicit attack on the status quo.
Because of his fierce defense of traditional union principles throughout his early career, "he doesn't have to prove anything to anyone about his union stripes," says Geiger. This has freed him to reach the policy wonks, governors and legislators shaping the future of schools. Shanker is fighting to change public education in order to save it, and he believes that unions have to rethink their roles if they want to survive.
Listen to younger union leaders--such as Tom Mooney in Cincinnati, Adam Urbanski in Rochester and Helen Bernstein in Los Angeles--and Shanker's legacy shines through. These leaders talk about how unions cannot thrive on bread-and-butter issues alone but must police their own profession and form partnerships with adversaries. "Some people still want us to play a very traditional role, where our job is just bashing management," says Mooney, who has helped push through such reforms as peer review and a tougher discipline code. "Certainly there are some things they deserve bashing about. But I say they really are not the real enemy."
Mooney won reelection recently with only 55% of the vote--a reflection of teachers' unease with the new role their union is being asked to play. Many worry that the enlightened culture Shanker has fostered will falter without him. It's a particular worry not only because of Shanker's health, but also because of the possibility that the AFT and the NEA will finally merge.
Because the AFT is smaller, chances are good that whoever is president when a merger occurs would be second to the NEA chief. Shanker professes not to care, but those close to him guess that a second spot would never fly. "I'm very much afraid that the whole tenor of the debate will change when he is no longer a part of it," says Doyle of the Heritage Foundation. "It will be less intellectual, less lofty."
Shanker's doctors have seen some promising signs that the chemotherapy is shrinking his tumors, but the treatment has been brutal, leaving Shanker too tired to read or play his stereo for long stretches. But even on a hospital bed with a nurse bursting in to take his EKG, he is unrelenting about the need for discipline and standards.
Complaints that these proposals reflect elitist tendencies or that they pander to right-wing sensibilities are just nonsense, he says, the low rumble of his voice obliterating the drone of a tiny hospital TV set. At any rate, there is nothing wrong with giving the public what it wants, especially if it is also what teachers say they need. "If we lose this battle," he warns, "the public will never listen to us again."
There is a sadness and an urgency to Shanker's fight. At the AFT convention last August, thousands of teachers jumped to their feet when Shanker, obviously ill, slipped out unannounced from behind a heavy curtain and made his way slowly across the huge stage. Their applause thundered across the immense hall, and tears streamed down some faces. Too sick to preside over the opening session the previous day, he rallied enough to deliver a rousing, hourlong keynote speech. The next day, he won his 12th consecutive term as president.
Hene Kelly, a San Francisco teacher, was one of those who stood up and cried. "He basically is one of my idols," she said, "not afraid to do the hard things but always making sure we have our rights."
That wouldn't be a bad epitaph. But ask Shanker how he'd like to be remembered, and he falls silent.
"Oh, gawd," he says finally, his voice dropping like a stone off a cliff. "I don't know. I don't have an answer to that. I don't think in those terms. That's been true all of my life. At any moment you can disappear. And so, in a sense, you always have to act that way in whatever you're doing. You're doing it because it might be your last act."