A group purporting to advocate for education reform is putting up a billboard attacking the state teachers' group, Wisconsin Education Association Council, or WEAC, as a tool of big labor uninterested in educating children.
Reforming Education And Demanding Excellent Results-Wisconsin, or READER-WI, is fronted by Jeff Waksman, spokesman for the Republican Party of Dane County, and David Blaska, former Isthmus blogger.
The group argues that public education is failing miserably and points to unions as the culprit: "Laws do not allow teachers to use children for partisan political advocacy, but that has not been the case, particularly in Wisconsin. Elementary school children have been forced to take part in anti-Scott Walker activities, even those young enough to not have any real grasp of the actual political issues facing the world. Big Labor has made the classroom much more political than it should be."
In making its case, the group announced that it is putting up a billboard Friday on the Beltline near Rimrock Road (by the WEAC office).
The billboard uses an apocryphal quote attributed to the late Albert Shanker, who was the president of the American Federation of Teachers: "When schoolchildren start paying union dues.... I'll start representing schoolchildren."
READER-WI's talking points are written in Waksman's trademark trolling style, which attempts to be mocking and sarcastic, but often falls flat. The group jokingly claims it gets financing from the Koch Brothers' oil empire and Bradley Foundation "blood diamond" sales, and adds, "Our talking points come directly from Faux News. Roger Ailes sends us e-mails each morning, pre-approved by Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Frank Luntz, Sarah Palin and Andrew Breitbart, that tell us exactly which lies to spread."
However, Waksman says financing for the billboard actually came from private donors. "We got some individuals to give us a few hundred dollars."
The group appears not to have read its own source material: it links to the Wikipedia entry on Shanker, which states that the quote is in dispute, with no evidence Shanker ever said it.
Waksman says he knows that the quote is disputed, but adds that it describes the essence of teacher's unions. "Teacher unions by law are not allowed to represent children," he says in a phone interview. "It describes exactly what they do."
The quote has been repeated many times, often by conservatives attacking unions as the bane of public education. Joel Klein used it in a June 2011 article in The Atlantic.
However, the Albert Shanker Institute made an extensive effort to find the source of the quote but failed. In a blog post, the Institute concluded: "It is very difficult -- sometimes impossible -- to prove a negative, especially when it is something like a verbal quotation.... 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."
The Institute speculates that the quote might be a distortion of a speech Shanker gave in the 1970s at Oberlin College, where he said, "I don't represent children. I represent teachers... But, generally, what's in the interest of teachers is also in the interest of students."
The Wikipedia entry lists other quotations from Shanker that are not disputed, including some that would fit perfectly with the stated goals of READER-WI.
Such as this one: "A lot of people who have been hired as teachers are basically not competent."
And this one: "It is as much the duty of the union to preserve public education as it is to negotiate a good contract."