Strengthening Democracy

  • SCOTUS Crisis of Confidence: Chief Justice Roberts Must Act

    Last month the Albert Shanker Institute hosted a virtual event to discuss the Supreme Court. The interest in our country’s highest court has grown dramatically over the last decade. Unfortunately, this interest is grounded in scandal and a serious decline in confidence.

    While the headlines about the latest Clarence Thomas scandal are new, the crisis of our nation’s highest court is not. Just last winter the Pew Research Center documented a steep 15 percentage point drop in favorability in the Supreme Court of the United States in only three years, from August 2019 to January 2022. In fact, that same Pew research article pointed out that the “current views of the court are among the least positive in surveys dating back nearly four decades

    Indeed, this Supreme Court integrity crisis did not start with Justice Thomas, although he has contributed to it mightily in his time on the high court with billionaire conservative friends lavishing him with gifts and his wife Ginni’s role in the January 6th insurrection. This crisis isn’t just about Justice Thomas. There are unanswered questions about Justice Neil Gorsuch’s property sale disclosure issue and conflict of interest concerns around Chief Justice John Roberts’ wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts’ role as recruiter for top law firms that argue in front of the Supreme Court.

  • The Albert Shanker Institute at 25

    The Shanker Institute turns 25 years old this month!

    The Shanker Institute was formed in 1998 to honor the life and legacy of AFT President Al Shanker. The organization’s by-laws commit it to four fundamental principles—vibrant democracy, quality public education, a voice for working people in decisions affecting their jobs and their lives, and free and open debate about all of these issues.

    From the beginning the Institute has brought together influential leaders and thinkers from business, labor, government, and education from across the political spectrum. ASI continues to sponsor research, promotes discussions, and seek new and workable approaches to the issues that shape the future of democracy, education, and unionism.

  • AFT Solidarity with Ukraine

    “We have a long history of showing up. Showing up for freedom, showing up for democracy, showing up for education, both here and abroad.”

    This is what American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told Nicole Wallace of MSNBC News about why she led a delegation to Lviv, Ukraine this month to meet with Ukrainian educators, trade unionists, medical workers and others engaged in the life and death struggle for Ukraine’s survival against Russian aggression.

    The AFT’s history of showing up is longstanding in Central and Eastern Europe. It dates to efforts before, during and after World War II to save trade unionists from fascist and communist tyranny in the region. As well, the AFT was the most active international union among AFL-CIO and international trade secretariat affiliates supporting the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland, both during the decade of martial law repression as well as the country’s dramatic transition from Soviet-imposed communism to democracy in 1988-89.

  • The First Fifteen Days: Building Community Through Civic Experiences

    In the third post of Shanker Institute Constitution Day 2022 series, guest author Shawn Fisch, a UFT Teacher Center Instructional Coach at Long Island City High School and a Shanker Institute Civics Fellow, asserts that the skills practiced by the Founding Fathers in building a consensus for a new model of government is the same thing teachers repeat each year with classroom culture and norms.

    There is no other feeling quite like the first day of school. A bunch of strangers come together from different places with different ideas and have to create a classroom/school where everyone can work together. In a sense, it is similar to the issue facing our new nation with the Constitution. How do we ensure that the values of the country are reflected in our curriculum? The answer is civics. The way we feel on the first day of school (for students and staff alike) can impact how we feel about our classrooms, our schools, and our communities. This year back to school was a statement of fact. Many students were literally returning back to a physical school building for the first time in years. It has been fifteen days since the start of the school year at Long Island City High School (LICHS). I’d like to take you on a journey with me looking at those 15 days through the lens of civics.

  • Education for Democracy

    From 2005, Unionism and Democracy, sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute in cooperation with the AFT International Affairs Department (edited). Given the fight for democracy today—given the assault on universal suffrage, on workers’ rights, on a free media, and an independent judiciary—it is worth revisiting this piece.

    Within the AFT’s motto—“Education for Democracy, Democracy in Education”—are several important ideas. One is that the common good is served by the creation, through a public education system, of an informed and knowledgeable citizenry. That is why post-colonial Americans first agreed to pay for the education of other people’s children. Second is the idea that, beyond the democratic content of such an education, the public school system—as a common place for educating all children equally—transmits and promotes a democratic sensibility and culture. And third is the idea that if education is for democracy, then education system should be democratic itself and that free teachers unions can play a unique role promoting democracy, not only in the classroom but in the workplace. Teachers and other educational employees should, therefore, be fully empowered through the unions of their choice and that they control.

  • I Don’t Like History... But I Love Civics

    In the second post of the Shanker Institute's Constitution Day 2022 Blog Series, guest author James Dawson, a UFT Teacher Center Instructional Coach at Paul L. Dunbar Middle School in the Bronx and Shanker Civics Fellow, contends that by infusing the concept of civic readiness into lessons, we are able to impart civic knowledge while encouraging civic engagement.

    When I first started coaching my school's social studies team, I was excited and naive. Excited by the chance to share my enthusiasm for (and, if I flatter myself, my considerable knowledge of) history Old World and New, ancient and modern. I was surprised to discover that my retention of the latter was considerably less than I had envisaged; I was surprised and dismayed that only a few students shared my enthusiasm. The narratives of the human experience that had drawn me to my history classes, my teachers’ descriptions of the earthier and less celebrated sides of well-known historical figures, their ponderings on the “could-have-beens” that would changed the course of the river of time, enthralled me.

  • 9/11 from New York to Jerusalem

    Guest Author Sam Shube is the CEO of Hagar -- Jewish Arab Education for Equality, which operates the only bilingual, Arab Jewish school in the southern Israel. He also established Scout Troop Adam, Israel's first integrated scout troop. Originally published in The Times of Israel, September 12, 2022..

    It’s been 21 years, but the Manhattan skyline remains tragically orphaned. Visiting New York on 9/11 brings back echoes of the panic and the fear that changed something, deep down, in the collective consciousness, the angst that stripped away our certitudes in the permanence of democratic life. I remember trying, desperately, to call the continental United States from my office in Jerusalem, eager for the slightest piece of news about my older brother who worked on the 66th floor of 2 World Trade Center. Communications, of course, were down, and it took several hours until I heard that he had surfaced, covered in soot, in lower Manhattan.

  • The Constitution Holds the Government Accountable

    In this first Constitution Day 2022 Blog Series post, Guest author Sean Thomas, a Shanker Institute Civics Fellow and National Board Certified Teacher, encourages his students to develop a deep personal relationship with the U.S. Constitution because when students become aware of how to exercise their democratic liberties, they can accomplish amazing things.

    Democracies work best when the citizens of a nation hold their government accountable. In democracies, the people must take responsibility for their government, its actions, and its laws, because we are the people who put our political leaders in power. The personal responsibility to hold the government accountable is a benefit to all of society. John Locke said, “…by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself [people] under the obligation to everyone in that society.” In order to do this, the people must be aware of the role of government and the job it’s supposed to fulfill. The citizenry must also be aware of when the government is overstepping, so it can check the government’s power. For the United States, the rule of law that establishes the role and limitations of government can be found in the seven articles and twenty-seven amendments contained in the U.S. Constitution.

    As a teacher, I encourage my students to not only read the U.S. Constitution, but also to have a deep, personal relationship to it. If students develop this relationship, they have the ability to understand the debate around what the different clauses in the Constitution mean. They can develop an informed position on the rights that are ensured to the people and they can challenge and discuss the variety of interpretations presented to them by politicians, media pundits, and other parts of society. It also helps my students realize that interpretations change over time and allows them to advocate for issues and causes they are passionate about through constitutional arguments. Most importantly, it teaches my students not to be controlled or overly influenced by people who provide interpretations of the Constitution to support a specific political agenda.

  • A More United America: Teaching Democratic Principles and Protected Freedoms

    by Kelly Booz

    On the last day of the Constitutional Convention on Sept. 17, 1787, Elizabeth Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, "Well, doctor, what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?" to which Franklin replied: "A republic, if you can keep it."

    America is built on the foundation of democracy. The preamble to the U.S. Constitution spells out the democratic principles we seek to achieve for "We the People.” The Constitution was written, the preamble says, “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.”

    Now, 235 years later, as we celebrate Constitution Day on Sept. 17, 2022, our Constitution is considered the longest-serving Constitution in the world. The U.S. Constitution and the freedoms granted within it belong to all of us, as long as we can keep it.

  • Democracy Threatened

    Guest author J. Brian Atwood, former National Democratic Institute President and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator, discusses how education is the key to preserving democratic values in an era of conspiracy theories and polarized political combat in the Philippines, the United States, and around the world.

    The election of Ferdinand Marcos’s son "BongBong” in the Philippines and the revelations of the January 6 Committee in the United States, were the focus of a recent panel at the Albert Shanker Institute in Washington DC.

    I was joined by two dynamic union leaders, President Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and Annie Geron, General Secretary of the Philippines Public Services Labor Independent Confederation, in a discussion of democracy’s challenges and a call to action to preserve democratic institutions in both countries.

    Labor unions were in the forefront of the wave of democratic change in the 1980s and 90s; they continue to see their mission as defending human and democratic rights, not only for their own members, but for society as a whole. Unions played a central role in that era in the battle to overthrow communism and autocratic governments.