In the first Republican presidential debate earlier this month, John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, surprised many with a performance that seemed to rescue the concept of “compassionate conservatism” from its oxymoronic meaning during George W. Bush’s presidency. When asked why he chose to expand Medicare in his state under Obamacare, the GOP-reviled health-reform bill, Kasich said, “I had an opportunity to bring resources back to Ohio, to do what? To treat the mentally ill. Ten thousand of them sit in our prisons at $22,500 a year. I’d rather get them the medication so they can lead a decent life.” And when asked about his stance on gay marriage, Kasich was similarly open-minded. Though he advocates traditional marriage, he accepts this summer’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide and recently attended a gay friend’s wedding. And he brought the issue home:

“If one of my daughters happened to be that, of course I would love them and accept them. Because you know what? That’s what we’re taught when we have strong faith.”

With these big-hearted positions, it was a surprise to see Kasich turn retrograde in his comments a few days ago at an education forum. The governor has little compassion, it seems, for teachers. “There’s a constant negative. ... They’re going to take your benefits. They’re going to take your pay,” he said, referring to conversations teachers’ unions inspire in their members.

“If I were, not president, if I were king in America, I would abolish all teachers’ lounges where they sit together and worry about ‘woe is us.’”

Abolish teachers’ lounges? You might dismiss this comment as a tongue-in-cheek throwaway. That’s a mistake. The urge to eliminate fora for democratic exchange among teachers — and to reduce their collective bargaining power — is a worrisome dream in a presidential candidate, even if he knows he will not be able to quite realize it once in the Oval Office.

Kasich’s dictatorial impulse to close teachers’ lounges because they give educators a place to air and share grievances and commiserate a little reminds me of a story embedded in W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 collection The Souls of Black Folk. In chapter 13, Du Bois juxtaposes the fates of two playmates named John in a Georgia town called Altamaha. One John is black; one is white. The former, full of promise, leaves town to get an education and, with some fits and starts, succeeds. When he returns to his hometown, black John is offered a teaching job by the town judge. But when somebody catches wind of what black John is teaching at the school, things turn ugly:

“Heah that John is livenin’ things up at the darky school,” volunteered the postmaster, after a pause.

"What now?” asked the Judge, sharply.

The whole school started in surprise, and the teacher half arose, as the red, angry face of the Judge appeared in the open doorway.


 “John, this school is closed. You children can go home and get to work. The white people of Altamaha are not spending their money on black folks to have their heads crammed with impudence and lies. Clear out! I’ll lock the door myself.”

To be clear, I am not saying that John Kasich is a racist. The point of comparison is, rather, the worry that when dangerous ideas percolate in a particular forum, the forum itself must be shut down. When blacks learn about liberty, equality, and fraternity by studying the French Revolution, they become more likely to fight for those rights for themselves. So the school must be shuttered. And when teachers hear their colleagues complain about work requirements or salaries, they become more likely to agitate against the city or the school board. Better to nip all that conversation in the bud by padlocking the sites of deliberation.

This comment was disturbing, but it is mild compared to what others in the GOP presidential field are saying. Some of the candidates want simply to close the Department of Education. All of them seem to have it out for the teachers’ unions. But Kasich is on the record as the only candidate who wants to shut teachers out of potentially rabble-rousing conversations in the break room. That’s neither conservative nor compassionate.

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