Dropout Nation’s revelations that the American Federation of Teachers aren’t all that fond of the Parent Power movement and other elements of the nation’s overall school reform movement has shattered Randi Weingarten’s three-year-long effort at triangulating reform. For the union and its charming, cunning president, it will be more-difficult to convince the public that they welcome parents to the table of education decision-making. And the rank-and-file won’t be too pleased either.
But the “Diffused Parent Trigger” affair (their misspelling, not ours) also proves lie to one of the biggest myths perpetuated by education traditionalists: That their efforts to defend even the most-atrocious of traditional public education practices is simply a homegrown grassroots affair fighting against supposedly “corporate” school reformers interested in filthy lucre. The very anti-intellectualism of this mythology — based on the failure to realize that the entrepreneurs and corporate institutions are the very reasons why America has a high standard of living, are the ones who provide the tax revenues that sustain American public education, and finance the very institutions that give education traditionalists their jobs — makes such statements rather ridiculous. More importantly, this myth fails to consider the reality that education traditionalists are themselves defenders of an institutional, or, I’ll dare say, corporate, culture.
Consider this: At the national level, the AFT, along with the NEA, generate $622 million a year in dues — and this is the tip of the iceberg. When one drills down into the finances of all of their affiliates, the two unions are billion-dollar organizations with the sizeable staffs that one would find in the average corporation. Weingarten and her counterpart, Dennis Van Roekel, are just as well-paid as their counterparts in the corporate world (and not just the S&P 500 companies unions tend to focus on, but the average CEO, who makes in the $350,000 range): Weingarten earned $428,284 in 2010,while Van Roekel was paid $397,721. Their respective executive team members also make six-figures sums, with Weingarten’s second-in-command, Loretta Johnson commanding $198,065 a year, while her NEA counterpart, Lilly Eskelson, gets $326,563.
Like their peers in the corporate world, the two unions devote countless hours developing strategies aimed at maximizing their core mission — serving their shareholders and customers, who, given that they are teachers, are one and the same. As with any business, they pay special attention to their controlling shareholders and most-loyal (and highest-spending) customers, Baby Boomers in the teaching corps, even though they make up a declining share of the shareholder and customer base. (Whether or not they are actually serving their customers and shareholders well is an open question; but then, most of them have no choice but to pay their dues). This includes developing marketing strategies such as touting that AFT and NEA affiliates are the only ones who can ensure that teachers are well-paid (and that school reform efforts are inferior, and in fact, dangerous to their incomes and careers), public relations activities such as endorsing (and financing half of the $100,000 budget for) last week’s Save Our Schools rally, and even corporate social responsibility activities such as donating millions to organizations whose views ostensibly dovetail with their own such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
And as with any business entity or institution, teachers unions always make sure that they continue to perpetuate their existence. Which means embracing branding and marketing strategies that advance their image. In their case, they promote the public image that they welcome family engagement and that they want to partner with them in order to improve education for all kids. And, as with Corporate America, they understand the importance of lobbying, public policy and campaigning in sustaining their business. It is why the two unions have become the biggest players in American campaign politics, handing off $292 million in donations between 2000 and 2011, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. And why the AFT and the NEA strongly opposes any effort to allow parents to be the lead decision-makers in education; it is a threat to their interests and, in their view, the very survival of their institutions.
In short, the NEA and the AFT are corporate traditional education institutions. They are not the only one. From traditional school districts (whose superintendents are often paid as well as Weingarten and Van Roekel) to university colleges of education (a $7 billion sector whose members train nearly all of the nation’s teachers), traditional public education’s defenders are about as corporately-driven as peers in the private and non-profit sectors. the more-independent of traditional educationalists are still just as tied up in the corporate/institutional landscape as those who work directly for institutions. From Diane Ravitch (who collects tidy sums from her gig at New York University, book royalties and speeches before traditional educationalists) to conspiracy theorist Mike Klonsky (who runs the small schools effort out of the University of Illinois, Chicago), and Kevin Welner (whose National Education Policy Center has counted on NEA support, and who also serves on the board of the union’s foundation arm), the idea that these folks are just mom-and-pop advocates is just plain hilarious.
What isn’t so funny is their opposition to reforming American public education so that all children can write their own stories. Their sclerotic unwillingness to abandon practices and mythologies that are failures is a detriment to our kids. And the tactics they engage in to sustain it (even as they talk a good game) pretty much casts them as cynical ciphers supporting a failed amoral vision that condemns 1.2 million children a year to poverty, prison and despair. While I believe that they care for the lives of children, their beliefs and dogmas do not match with their tactics and actions. And this is especially infuriating when it comes to how they treat poor and minority parents and their children, who deserve better than condescension, dismissal and disdain.
Anything wrong with being corporate or institutional? Certainly not. Unless one is independently wealthy, everyone — including entrepreneurs, middle-managers, and advocates– depends on customers, clients and employers for their sustenance. But it is funny that education traditionalists don’t realize the hypocrisy inherent in their anti-corporate rhetoric — and, even after this week’s revelations, that they continue to be dismissive of Parent Power activists. Especially when they call themselves parent advocates. School reformers should consistently call out education traditionalists for the blatant mismatch between their message and what they actually support.