Conservatives’ Panic Over Teachers Misses How Little Freedom They Have

Calls for control over educators are manufactured political myths as they’ve never had the power to push an agenda

Op-Ed by Diana D’Amico, originally published in the Washington Post

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.

In the fall of 1917, New York City public schools fired three teachers for “holding views subversive of discipline in the school and which undermine good citizenship.” One teacher had assigned the task of writing a letter to President Woodrow Wilson but did not admonish a student who used the essay to vent his frustration, telling the president, “You are ready to slaughter us all.” Another teacher similarly decided to remain neutral during a heated classroom conversation among students about the “merits of anarchism,” and the other distributed a questionable reading list.

Union leaders pushed back, arguing that teachers had the academic freedom to run their classes as they saw fit. They raised more than $10,000 to defend the teachers and invested years in the fight, but school leaders remained unconvinced and demanded that teachers “continue teaching obedience to authority.”

Loyalty oaths became standard practice, and around the country teachers faced circumstances similar to those that had cost the New York teachers their jobs.

But in the 1930s, critics began to wonder whether the associated costs were too high. A survey from the National Education Association’s committee on academic freedom found the repressive and chilling climate in the schools might be pushing teachers out of the profession in fear. In 1949, a committee of leading educators, including Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was serving as the president of Columbia University, issued a report that declared, “State laws requiring special oaths for teachers, or laying down detailed prescriptions for the school curriculum … do harm to an important safeguard of freedom in education.” The committee called on the public to “resist exaggerated fears which tend to rise in periods of heightened tensions.”

Local leaders ignored this warning. A few short years later, 180 teachers in New York City found themselves under investigation as part of a campaign to purge communists from the schools.

Concerns over teachers’ unbridled academic freedom didn’t just stem from fears about their loyalty to the country, they also arose from doubts about teachers’ loyalty to the public school system. In 1959, James Worley, a longtime teacher who served as chair of the English department at his school in Westchester County, N.Y., was fired for insubordination when he refused to file lesson plans with his administrator. For Worley, the oversight infringed on his professional authority and academic freedom. His superiors cared about neither. In their dismissal report, the board wrote that “a teacher must recognize and respect the balance of administrative authority and teacher freedom.”

The situation was even more dire for the nation’s Black teachers. Across the South, teachers of color fought for racial justice through pay equalization and school integration.

Howard Pindell taught in the Anne Arundel County, Md., public schools for five years and had secured tenure privileges. Yet, when he pressed for higher pay in 1938, he was transferred to another district without tenure and fired. In South Carolina, 12 veteran teachers of color — all with the highest levels of certification — were dismissed before the start of the 1954 school year because they signed a petition in support of improved schools, refused to sign a petition in favor of school segregation, and had relatives who were actively involved in the NAACP. In 1956, another 17 Black teachers were fired in South Carolina because they refused to sign a pledge that detailed their affiliation with and views on the NAACP. Time and time again, Black teachers who fought for and taught about racial justice were demoted, transferred and dismissed without recourse in the name of reining in what White school leaders defined as a dangerous autonomy and academic freedom.

Critics have long cast public school teachers as both the problem plaguing the nation’s schools and the pathway to improvement. This formulation has been the engine driving changes to the American educational system into the 21st century as fears over academic freedom and tenure accelerated the standardization and constriction of school curriculums and efforts to roll back teachers’ job protections.

But in reality, the nation’s public school teachers have never had academic freedom, even as the fear that they might has been historically persistent. These circumstances have led to burnout for teachers of all races and made it more difficult for teachers of color to enter and remain in schools. As we face severe teacher shortages, this is no minor issue.

But perhaps even more important are the consequences for American society. In preventing teachers from guiding students in debate and critical inquiry and inhibiting them from educating about social justice, we have weakened the core elements of American democracy. Indeed, the fear of what might happen if children encounter difficult topics may well trace to generations of adults who never learned how to do just that.

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.

This essay is the seventh in the Freedom to Learn series sponsored by PEN America, providing historical context for controversies surrounding free expression in education today.