Your editor generally pays no mind to Leo Casey. After all, the mouthpiece for the American Federation of Teachers’ New York City local is more likely to spend his time offering absurd class war rhetoric (especially in light of the considerable fortunes of both the union and the local) and even engaging in an Reductio ad Hitlerum-like statement against Steve Brill than offering cogent arguments in defense of the union’s thinking. If anything, like Diane Ravitch, the Edwize writer discredits education traditionalist ideas every time he types. But then, what can you expect from someone who has the audacity to demand civility from others when he doesn’t practice it himself?
But Casey managed to get my attention this time because he penned one of his even less thoughtful than usual piece attacking Parent Trigger laws and Parent Power groups (in which he misspelled my name in the headline). Engaging in the kind of guilt-by-association argument that only a sophist with the lack of skill to be a proper propagandist can do, Casey essentially proclaims that Parent Trigger laws are “anti-public education” and “reactionary” because a version of it was touted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative outfit that also successfully promoted Stand Your Ground laws such as the one on Florida that the original prosecutor involved in the Trayvon Martin murder case thought complicated the prosecution of George Zimmerman. Proclaiming that legislators modeling laws in their own states were engaging in something akin to plagiarism, Casey then took a swipe at yours truly and other Parent Power activists for allegedly having “nothing to say” about ALEC’s role in promoting both Parent Trigger and Stand Your Ground legislation.
As someone who actually thinks things through, I had to re-read Casey’s claptrap twice because it is amazingly and absurdly illogical. The fact that Casey compares the sharing of proposed versions of laws (and related exchange of ideas) among politicians and wonks as something akin to plagiarism is absolutely ridiculous. Such activity is as old as the nation itself, and explains why Blaine laws, teachers’ union collective bargaining laws, and reverse-seniority rules are similar across most states. (That the AFT and other unions have engaged in promoting model legislation also makes one wonder if Casey knows what he is talking about in the first place.)
One need not be a fan of ALEC to recognize that the fact that it promoted one flawed bit of legislation doesn’t invalidate other bills it has promoted. Based on that reductionist thinking, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights would also be invalid because its authors were also slave-owners. Same with the underlying argument that Parent Trigger laws and Parent Power activists (along with the families who support them) are merely fronts (and dupes) for supposedly right wing foes of the public education. The fact that both hardcore progressives such as Parent Revolution boss Ben Austin, mainstream Democrats such as U.S. Rep. George Miller, and conservatives such as Bruno Behrend of the Heartland Institute can see past their worldviews on other issues to recognize the importance of placing parents into lead decision-making roles in education merely proves the positively bipartisan (and mostly post-ideological) nature of the school reform movement that frustrates Casey and his fellow traditionalists.
Casey is old enough to realize that his illogical thinking doesn’t stand up to any real scrutiny. But then, Casey isn’t trying to actually think. What he is doing is evading the real issues that Parent Trigger laws (along with efforts to expand school choice) are tackling: The reality that traditional public education policies have ling denied families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, the ability to help their kids get high-quality learning.
Contrary to Casey’s contention, the reality is that the AFT, along with the National Education Association, traditional district bureaucrats, and ed school players, have long considered families to be little more than nuisances and afterthoughts in education. From where the average NEA and AFT boss sits, families should be barely seen and almost never heard from except through old-school family engagement groups (and new versions such as Parents Across America) that the unions have long co-opted. As seen in battles such as those between mostly-black families in New York City’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville community and the AFT’s New York local in 1968, and fracases between modern Parent Power groups and NEA affiliates over the use of Parent Trigger laws in the California cities of Adelanto and Compton — education traditionalists are none too fond of families demanding to sit at the proverbial adult table of decision-making. And it is this longstanding disdain toward — and inherent distrust of — families (along with the unwillingness to hand over hard-won clout over education policymaking) that explains why union officials (along with their counterparts in district bureaucracies) oppose the expansion of charters and other forms of school choice.
Such opposition to families has consequences. For one, the disdain trickles down into relationships between those who work in schools and the very families they serve. This is especially true for poor and minority families in urban districts. As Peter McDermott and Julia Johnson Rothenberg of the Sage Colleges have noted in their research on school engagement, urban and low-income parents often perceive schools to be unwelcoming and interactions with teachers to be “painful encounters.” While this is partly due to the negative experiences these parents have had with schools — especially those failure mills that they once attended and to which their children now go — it is also . But it is also about the fact that there are many teachers who look at parents, especially those who may not be capable of helping their kids because of their own learning issues — and are downright hostile to those mothers and fathers who want their role in shaping education to extend beyond field trips and homework.
This disdain is also experienced by suburban families, who, unlike those in urban settings, supposedly have more clout to force change. Black, Asian and Latino families,many of whom are emerging from poverty and are entering the middle class for the first time, learn quickly that they have to battle teachers and principals just to make sure that their kids aren’t steered away from college-preparatory courses and aren’t denied access to Advanced Placement courses. As University of Michigan Associate Professor Karyn Lacey noted in Blue-Chip Black, her sociological study of middle-class black families in the area surrounding the nation’s capital, black families living in Fairfax County found themselves battling teachers and guidance counselors who wanted to relegate children to academic tracks that keep them from getting high-paying white- and blue-collar jobs. And as Dr. Steve Perry pointed out in his book, Push Has Come to Shove, the way schools deal with parents of all backgrounds (especially poor families) is particularly disdainful; from inconveniently-scheduled parent-teacher conferences, to the lack of meaningful communication about student progress until it is far too late to help kids succeed, traditional districts offer little to parents.
The disdain of families from AFT and NEA affiliates and their national leaders can also be seen in the very policies for which they advocate. They back quality-blind reverse-seniority layoff rules that lead to talented-but-less senior teachers in schools serving the poorest kids losing their jobs (while veteran instructors who are failures in the classroom keeping theirs). They oppose the use of student test score data in evaluating and rewarding teacher performance, which can result in removing laggard instructors families don’t want teaching their kids. And as seen in Chicago (where the AFT affiliate there has gone toe to toe with Mayor Rahm Emanuel over his effort to expand instructional time) and Waterbury, Conn. (where the NEA affiliate is filing labor complaints against the district’s effort to improve reading instruction and curricula for its students), teachers’ union affiliates and their fellow-travelers in education traditionalist circles are more-concerned with protecting their privileges and influence than providing the children their families love with high-quality education. This isn’t to say that they don’t think they care about children or think they support families; but it is clear that their actions belie (and betray) their words.
As with school choice and the rest of the school reform movement, Parent Power activists have emerged because families are no longer willing to simply trust the adults in schools — especially those in urban communities — who have perpetuated educational neglect and malpractice. In joining alongside longtime reformers for both the expansion of choice and the enactment of Parent Trigger laws, these mothers and fathers are using the tools at their disposal to take power and be truly engaged in education. That’s the the thing about Parent Trigger laws and choice: Unlike so many of the so-called family engagement exercises touted by education traditionalists, Parent Trigger laws and school choice truly empowers parents because they can actually shape the quality of education for their children.
This kind of influence, which would crowd out the outsized influence NEA and AFT affiliates have had since the 1960s, is one that Casey and his AFT bosses, Michael Mulgrew and Randi Weingarten, have no interest in supporting. And it is why Casey would rather try reductionist thinking than truly engage in a real discussion about transforming education so that all children and their families can continue to bend the arc of American history towards progress.