When an organization screeches about not letting “Our Schools Be Bought and Sold” — especially given that traditional public school districts and public charter schools serve nearly all but a smattering of a city’s and the nation’s kids — then you have to be suspicious of its entire agenda. When it then issues a 24-page conspiracy paper proclaiming that school reformers such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee are supposedly engaged in a sinister conspiracy with Republican presidential nominee presumptive Mitt Romney to supposedly end public education in the Big Apple, then you have to just plain laugh at it.
This is clear in the case of New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, which is mounting a campaign against Bloomberg’s 11-year-long school reform effort, and make sure that those who aspire to succeed the Big Apple mayor don’t stay the course. The latest step in NYGPS’ effort came earlier this week when it released a white paper attempting to portray laudable bipartisanship and agreement on transforming American public education as some sort of a bad thing.
The report itself reads like one of famed Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist Mark Lane’s atrocious books, or worse, the script to the equally horrid script for JFK. Besides insinuating that StudentsFirst’s lawful use of campaign finance laws (including funding support of Republican and Democrat candidates through 527 committees) was somehow aimed at hiding its ties to the Romney campaign, the report implies that the organization’s strategy is somehow influenced by Romney’s lawful use of the loophole-ridden American tax code to reduce his tax burden, something, by the way, that well-paid education traditionalists likely do as well. The report also implies that somehow Romney is attempting to infiltrate the Democratic Party by noting presence of Romney advisers such as Dan Senor on the board of the StudentsFirst’s New York affiliate alongside prominent centrist Democrat reformers such as former New York City chancellor Joel Klein and charter school operator Success cofounder (and rumored mayoral aspirant) Eva Moskowitz.
The fact that NYGPS managed to get so much “information”, despite their insinuations of a conspiracy, never seems to factor into their thinking. That so much of the group’s “investigative” efforts into this so-called conspiracy consisted largely of reading easily available news clippings, is especially pathetic. NYGPS’ assertion that somehow those pouring money into advancing reform makes the efforts illegitimate is purely illogical thinking. Based on that reductionist rationalizing, the efforts of the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association to preserve traditionalist practices and their own influence would also be illegitimate because the two groups are big-moneyed groups that pour $167 million a year into this work (including donations to progressive groups and other activists whose views dovetail with their own).
Your editor felt like he had lost a valuable brain cell or two by the time he was finished reading through the claptrap. Given that he is way past age 20, he would rather keep as many of them as possible. Thank God the meditation that comes from watering the shrubs and trees surrounding Dropout Nation headquarters helped restore them.
Meanwhile NYGPS manages to point out something that isn’t all secret or bad: That the school reform movement is a rather bipartisan one, with centrist and idiosyncratically liberal Democrats, conservative and moderate Republicans, and libertarians joining common cause in (or simply sharing similar views on) overhauling American public education.
Since the late 1970s when southern Democrat governors and chambers of commerce joined together to fix schools within their states, the school reform movement has been one of players from various political and ideological backgrounds reaching the view that the nation’s education crisis must be ended in order to help all children succeed and keep America in its place as the premiere economic and geopolitical superpower. It isn’t just big-named politicians who are part of this. Big city Democrat mayors, young urbanites, black and Latino families, evangelical Christians, and others have declared that the traditionalist thinking that has led to 150 kids dropping out every hour must be tossed into the ashbin of history — and they have worked both together and on their own to advance school choice, Parent Power, teacher quality reforms, and other initiatives.
There is nothing wrong with this activity. In fact, it is no different than what the NEA does each day when the union supports Save Our Schools rallies, and finances players such as Parents Across America cofounder Leonie Haimson’s Class Size Matters (whose board members include once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch). And no different than what the AFT has done by essentially subsidizing NYGPS. Didn’t know that? Yes, NYGPS is nothing more than an unofficial affiliate of the AFT’s New York State and Big Apple units, which have spent the past few years propping up some of the outfits that are, umm, partners in this grand coalition.
Between the 2007-2008 and 2010-2011 fiscal years, the AFT’ New York State affiliate, United Teachers, ladled to $1.6 million to Alliance for Quality Education, one of the name partners in NYGPS, according to reports filed by the affiliate with the U.S. Department of Labor; the Big Apple local handed off $35,000 to the group during that period. Another NYGPS partner who is also being funded by the AFT is New York Communities for Change; it collected $569,801 from the two affiliates during that same period. The AFT’s Big Apple affiliate and Communities for Change are also tag-team partners in another group backing NYGPS, the Coalition for Educational Justice. Another NYGPS partner is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s New York State branch, which teamed up with AFT’s New York City local last year on the unsuccessful (and humiliating) effort to stop the expansion of charter schools.
Certainly there is nothing wrong with the AFT subsidizing its allies in order to defend its influence. Nothing at all. There’s nothing wrong with money or using money to advance one’s cause. It is how one advances its cause — and more importantly, the cause itself — that matters more. In the case of the AFT (along with many of its traditionalists allies), this is the problem.
As seen over the past few weeks, with AFT President Randi Weingarten’s embarrassing outburst against former CNN journalist (and wife of StudentsFirst’s New York affiliate board member) Campbell Brown, and AFT flunkie Leo Casey’s “blood libel” smear against Campbell and other reformers, the AFT is seemingly unable to engage reformers in an honest debate over the consequences of their defense of traditionalist practices. This isn’t just an AFT problem. The NEA (along with the AFT) is now engaging in similar warfare, this time over the release of the film Won’t Back Down by proclaiming that the film, which portrays families attempting to use a Parent Trigger law, as somehow being anti-teacher, conflating the generally low regard among the public for teachers’ unions with their high regard for teachers in general. [Parent Power activists such as the Texas Parents Union, and the Connecticut Parents Union, whose president, Gwen Samuel, is a Dropout Nation contributing editor, have joined together to push back against the NEA’s and AFT’s attempt to tear down the film.]
In the process of failing to engage reformers in an intellectually (and even morally) honest manner, the two unions are proving conclusively that they cannot defend a failed and impoverished vision of American public education, one that perpetuates Zip Code Education policies that restrict the ability of families, especially poor and minority households, from choosing high-quality teaching and curricula, and forces good and great teachers to work alongside laggards who deserve to be out of classrooms.
The NYGPS effort is just another embarrassing chapter, both for the AFT and its traditionalist allies. It would be best for the union to shut down this group and just embrace systemic reform once and for all.