Jaime Escalante died last week at age 79—he was the inspiration for the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. Edward James Olmos was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of the Bolivian born math teacher who transformed Garfield High School in East Los Angeles by proving that its tough Hispanic inner city kids could learn advanced calculus. The film is probably the best modern entry in the Hero Teacher genre which has been a staple of Hollywood at least since 1955’s Blackboard Jungle through To Sir With Love in 1967 and on to such lesser contemporary pictures as Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers.
In each of these films, a tough, no-nonsense educator takes on the thugs and outcasts of a ghetto public school and transforms them through discipline, caring and creativity into successful and educable students. And these films have something else in common too. After they end, our public school system remains almost entirely dysfunctional, incapable of systematizing or even repeating the hero teacher’s feat.
If you’d like to know why that is, some of the answers lie in what you might call the unfilmed sequel to Escalante’s story—I mean, the story that happened after Stand and Deliver was over. You can find that story in a book by George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education Rod Paige entitled The War Against Hope, How Teachers’ Unions Hurt Children, Hinder Teachers and Endanger Public Education. It’s published by my friends over at Thomas Nelson.
At the peak of Escalante’s work at Garfield, his math enrichment program involved over 400 students and produced more kids who passed Advanced Placement calculus than wealthy Beverly Hills High. He achieved this truly mind-boggling feat despite constant opposition from guess which formidable source. If you guessed evil right-wing racists, congratulations, you have the chief qualification to become a New York Times columnist: a distorted sense of reality. Because the true answer of course is: that untouchable mainstay of the Democratic Party, the teachers union.
The union opposed Escalante’s classes at the beginning when they were smaller than union rules allowed and at their peak when they became larger. There were complaints he came to work too early and left too late, and gripes about his high standards and tough discipline. “If you looked into what is going on in this school in the name of the union,” Escalante wrote the union president in 1990, “I think… you would be appalled.” Escalante was able to triumph over this opposition because his success had made him famous and because he had the support of another hero, Garfield principal Henry Gradillas.
But Gradillas had made an enemy of the union too and, in 1988, after he took a year-long sabbatical, he was reassigned to a position supervising asbestos removal. Unprotected by the administration, Escalante was harried and demoted until, disgusted, he finally left the school in 1991. A new teacher tried to continue his program but the union, backed by the new principal, chased him out with constraints and restrictions within a year. By 1996, only 11 Garfield students passed the AP exam, down from a high of 85.
The National Education Association is the largest labor union in the US, and its sister union, the American Federation of Teachers, is also huge. With their Democratic allies, they make the firing of bad teachers almost impossible and the work of good teachers heartbreakingly difficult. Then, ironically, they trade on the good will generated by men like Jamie Escalante and by movies like Stand and Deliver, knowing that, in Democratic Hollywood, the anti-union sequel will never be made.