Stossel: Stupid in Quotation Marks

John Stossel, he of the very Magnum P.I. ‘stache, has a repeat of an article on Fox News entitled “Stupid In America” where he excoriates teachers’ unions for education spending going “through the roof” and “flat test scores”.


"I don't imagine you'd understand that sort of thing, would you, Magnum?"

Without addressing this controversy, which plenty of people on both sides of the issue continue to weigh-in, I have to take issue with Stossel’s use of a couple of oft-repeated quotes in this article.

The first quotation:

Their predecessors were more candid. When the Washington Post asked George Parker, when he headed the Washington, D.C. teachers union, why he fought a voucher program that let some kids escape failing government schools, he said, “As kids continue leaving the system, we will lose teachers. Our very survival depends on having kids in D.C. schools so we’ll have teachers to represent.”

It took me a while to find the Washington Post story that contains this quote because I had to wade through a deluge of conservative sites and blogs that parroted the alleged words of George Parker. When I found the story, there seemed to be a problem with Stossel’s representation of the context of the quote.

A proposed contract to be voted on today by the more than 4,000 members of the D.C. teachers union would enable teachers to earn bonuses tied to student performance and to opt out of some union work rules.

Although both programs would be voluntary and limited to a few schools, the proposals are a turnabout for the Washington Teachers’ Union, whose leaders in the past have opposed various forms of pay-for-performance and more-demanding work schedules.

So, in the timeline of this blog post, public charter schools had already passed and were established in D.C. Parker’s words were in reaction to the charter school changes (the kind of thing I imagine Stossel is supporting) that were supposedly forcing them to compete (another thing it appears Stossel is supporting).

Union President George Parker said the changes are needed so that the District’s traditional public schools can compete more successfully with the public charter schools, which have lured away thousands of students.

This is very different from “When the Washington Post asked George Parker, when he headed the Washington, D.C. teachers union, why he fought a voucher program that let some kids escape failing government schools…” Parker apparently is responding to competing with public charter schools, not why he’s opposing vouchers. Context is everything.

The second quotation:

Albert Shanker, the teachers’ union president who, years ago, first turned teachers unions into a national political force, was even more honest. Shanker callously said, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”

I couldn’t find a reasonable source for this quote, except similar echoes of Stossel’s assertion, after some Googling myself (evidence of nothing in and of itself), but the Albert Shanker Institute (yes, it would have a bias in this) does provide a reasonable explanation on its blog.

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, after an extensive search, 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, 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, using the HeinOnline search engine, which permits one to search the CR archives from all years. 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 apparent that there doesn’t seem to be a solid basis for this quote such as in the case of, “The only traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy and the lash”, attributed to Winston Churchill. Though, as I mentioned, this is coming from the Albert Shanker Institute, so it doesn’t hurt to double-check its own somewhat basic research. However, I’ll give kudos to the institute for their caveat.

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.

Then they go on to give a possible alternate explanation for how the quote came to be and how it was spread which is also worth reading. In any case, it’s a lot more work than John Stossel put into his own article.

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