This post is co-authored by Matt Di Carlo and Esther Quintero.
Update: Please see this May 2012 "Fact Checker" piece on the Shanker quote in the Washington Post.
This week, in an Atlantic article, former New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein dropped an incendiary Albert Shanker quote that you’ve probably heard before:
When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.
The negative implications of this statement are obvious, which is why it is so frequently quoted by (mostly) conservative pundits and journalists.
We didn’t know Al Shanker personally. He died while we were still college undergraduates. So, we were surprised to learn that the people who knew and worked with Shanker have long thought this quote to be apocryphal.
We were skeptical but intrigued, and decided to do a little detective work.
The quote has been used many hundreds, perhaps many thousands, of times in newspapers, magazines, blogs, and speeches. Virtually none of the authors has bothered to provide a source – a date, an event, anything. Nevertheless, we uncovered two possible sources of origin.
The first is an article in the Meridian Star (a newspaper in Meridian, MS) from August 13, 1985. It is the earliest published version of the quote that we could find, and a couple of subsequent articles also suggest that it is the first (see here). In addition, this paper cites it as the original (page 176), as do a couple of blog posts (this one, for instance). We were unable to locate an electronic copy of this article, so we took a quick trip over to the Library of Congress, and found it on microfilm.
The article, called “Teacher unions made their bed, must sleep in it”, has no byline. Here is the relevant passage:
American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker may have hit the key difference between his organization and both the public and the legislature a couple of years ago when he said, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.
So, unless you consider “a couple of years ago” to be journalistically-rigorous sourcing, this is not a source.
The second possible origin is the Congressional Record, also from August 1985. For example, a 1995 book, Do the Right Thing: The People’s Economist Speaks, by George Mason University economist Walter E. Williams, attributes the quote (page 83) to a statement made by Shanker that was supposed to have been included in the August 1985 Congressional Record. A 1997 paper by David W. Kirkpatrick, published by the conservative Reason Public Policy Institute, also uses the quote, citing (via footnote on page 10) a Washington Times article called “Rip-Offs in the Schools?" (9/5/92). This article also attributes the quote to the 1985 Congressional Record.
So we searched the Congressional Record. The quote does not appear in August 1985. In fact, there are only two instances in which that quote has ever been entered into the Congressional Record. The first was on March 23, 1994, when former Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX) used the quote secondhand. The second was on May 23, 2001, when the quote was put forth (again secondhand, with no source) by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO). It's plausible that the Meridian Star article was entered into the record.
It is very difficult – sometimes impossible – to prove a negative, especially when it is something like a verbal quotation. And we are not professional archivists or historians. So, we cannot demonstrate conclusively that Albert Shanker never made this particular statement. He was a forthright guy who was known for saying all manner of interesting and provocative things, both on and off the record.
But we believe the quote is fiction, and instead have an alternative explanation.
A couple of former Shanker staff members recall an incident that may be the source. The words weren’t spoken in 1985, or “a couple of years” before that. The incident in question occurred during a speech Shanker delivered at Oberlin College, while he was still president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (probably during the early- to mid-1970s).
Although nobody recalls the exact wording, it went something like this:
I don’t represent children. I represent teachers… But, generally, what’s in the interest of teachers is also in the interest of students.
If you omit the third and final sentence, this is similar enough to the “when school children start paying union dues” quote to possibly be its origin. If so, it was distorted and truncated, having reverberated for many years within a political echo chamber, unencumbered by proper attribution, as a weapon against teachers’ unions.
But context is important. What Shanker is saying here is pretty simple, and not particularly controversial: If you treat teachers properly, students benefit. We may disagree with what constitutes “treating teachers well," but even the most ardently anti-union people cannot dispute the idea that rewarding and respecting our teachers is good for students. That’s just common sense.
So, we are hoping that the echo chamber will die down, and that those who use the quote as worded most recently by Joel Klein either provide a credible source for it, or stop using it. Instead, they should use the version of the quote – in full – that actually has some basis in reality beyond obscure Mississippi newspapers that can only be found on microfilm at the Library of Congress.
Note: We strongly encourage anyone who has any information about a credible source for the quote as commonly worded to leave a comment or contact us directly. If we ever receive and verify that information, we will update this post immediately.