Sometimes in the midst of a tragedy like the Newton massacre, we witness incredible acts of valor, tenderness, grace, and decency. We saw it from Sandy Hook Elementary School’s teachers, students, and parents, as well as from their community and country. The outpouring of sympathy and help has been touching and at times inspiring.
But there have also been very unfortunate, even callous and disgusting, statements made by individuals who cannot help but use a slaughter of more than two dozen people, most of whom are children, to advance their ideology.
We see it on both sides.
From the right, there was Focus on the Family founder James Dobson linking the attack as a consequence of a country increasingly embracing same-sex marriage and legal abortion. Not to be outdone, former governor Mike Huckabee asserted that removing religion from our public schools led to the carnage.
But what we heard from some of the most prominent teachers’ union leaders was offensive as well.
For example, the unions’ newest patron saint, education writer Diane Ravitch, wrote a post titled “The Hero Teachers of Newtown.” Just three days after the shooting, Ravitch described the teachers’ bravery not in individual terms, but by linking it to their union membership. The implication was clear: nonunion teachers would not have acted the same way. And if that weren’t enough, she used the dead to rant against teacher evaluations, tenure, and student testing. She also criticized Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy for supporting charter schools, saying, “Let us hope Governor Malloy learned something these past few days about the role of public schools in their communities. Newtown does not need a charter school. What it needs now is healing.” What a creative way to champion healing: divisive and ugly rhetoric.
Ravitch’s comments were criticized by David Rosenberg, a senior member of Teach for America, the nonprofit that recruits high-performing college graduates to work in low-income school districts for two years. Immediately coming to Ravitch’s defense was Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Lewis said this:
Rosenberg’s “false outrage” needs to be checked. That same false outrage should show itself when policies his colleagues support kill and disenfranchise children from schools across this nation. We in Chicago have been the victims of their experiments on our children since the current secretary of education “ran” [Chicago Public Schools].
Far from supporting policies that “kill and disenfranchise children,” Teach for America is one of the nation’s most successful education organizations. Studies in three states where Teach for America operates found their members helped students achieve academic improvement at rates equal to or better than students of veteran teachers. In a 2011 survey of principals, 90 percent reported high levels of satisfaction with Teach for America graduates. And a Harvard University study found members more likely to believe in the academic potential of students no matter their background or income; and more likely to go on to careers in the field of education. Speaking at its 20th anniversary, President Obama congratulated Teach for America’s success (now more than 28,000 members) and praised its belief that everyone “no matter who they are or where they live deserves a quality education.”
The comments by Dobson, Huckabee, Ravitch, and Lewis share something in common: minds so dogmatic, so tendentious, and so drawn to bitter and contentious debates that they cannot help but use dead children as weapons in their culture wars.
It is a depressing spectacle. And I wish, for the sake of our country and in the name of decency, both sides would cease and desist. Heartless zealotry, whether from the religious right or from the teachers’ union on the left, is always troubling. In the aftermath of a massacre, it’s downright sickening.