It’s hard to take the class warfare rhetoric of National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers bosses all that seriously — and not just because it is based on the simple-minded, class envy-driven, anti-intellectual view that entrepreneurs and others cannot have both healthy interests in improving the world in which they live and equally sensible self-interests in leaving their marks on it. After all, for as much as they like to talk nefariously about the role of entrepreneurs such as Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and homebuilding titan Eli Broad in advancing systemic reform, paint reformers as being nothing more than plutocrats looking to get rich off of ending public education as they prefer it, engage in faux progressive chatter about opposing supposed plutocrats, and forget the important role of private-sector players in financing (and even providing services to) American public education, NEA and AFT leaders are themselves among the nation’s affluent elite, controlling two of the best-financed players at the table of educational decision-making. After all, in the real world, privilege is as much about political clout and access as it is about income and wealth.
From controlling the $713 million in forced dues collections generated by the NEA and AFT generate at the national level (which, by the way, doesn’t include the revenues of their respective affiliates), to the $152 million spent in 2011-2012 on maintaining declining influence, to the 633 union leaders and staffers earning six-figure sums, NEA and AFT leaders are as well-financed as the reformers they oppose so wholeheartedly. In fact, NEA and AFT leaders are actually even better-financed and have more power at their disposal because of their influence (along with that of their traditionalist allies) over the school districts and university schools of education, the institutions through which most of the $599 billion in taxpayer funds (as of 2011) devoted to education flow. And when one keeps in mind that many NEA and AFT leaders will also collect hefty annuities from defined-benefit pensions — even though they no longer work in classrooms — it is also clear that they have, umm, profited, from American public education.
So you can’t help but give the proverbial side-eye to Karen Lewis, the president of the AFT’s notoriously bellicose Chicago Teachers Union local, whenever she engages in particularly nasty form of class warfare trash-talk. Especially yesterday, when Lewis (or, more-likely, one of her staffers) took to her Twitter feed to complain about “people of wealth and privilege” — especially those who are advancing systemic reform — supposedly trying to “convince the world they have neither”. Because of their wealth, Lewis feels that they “don’t have a clue about poverty”, and implicitly, shouldn’t actually want to help build better lives for those who are struggling economically and socially.
Your editor won’t go into all the reasons why Lewis’ argument is senseless; after all, the efforts of Gates and others (including Democrats for Education Reform cofounder Whitney Tilson) in advancing school reform as well as immediate consequences of poverty stand on their own. But I will point out that it is rather rich of Lewis to engage in class warfare rhetoric against the affluent when she is one of them.
Last year, Lewis was payed $139,346 by the local, according to the Chicago AFT’s 2011-2012 filing with the Internal Revenue Service. This is nearly double the $71,330 she earned from the union in the previous year. Lewis also collected $64,157 from the AFT’s Illinois affiliate as one of its executive vice presidents, according to the affiliate’s LM-2 filing with the U.S. Department of Labor; that was unchanged from 2011. [Lewis also picked up a $637 check from the AFT's national parent in 2011-2012, according to the AFT's own filing with the Department of Labor, nine dollars more than she got from the union in the previous year.] Add up the numbers, and Lewis pulled down $204,140 in 2011-2012, easily putting her among the nation’s top five percent of income-earners (or those earning more than $161,579 as of 2012, according to the Internal Revenue Service). She is, in short, as well-resourced (if not more so, in terms of political influence) as some players in the school reform movement.
Lewis wasn’t the only six-figure player on the Chicago Teachers Union’s payroll. Eight other staffers (of nine listed on the tax form besides Lewis) were either among the top 10 percent of the nation’s wage earners or close to it. This includes Lynn Cherkasky-Davis, an administrator for the union whose $174,209 in salary was the highest on the list, Field Representative Sara Eschevarria (who pulled down $150,614) and Recording Secretary Michael Brunson (who picked up $111,127). Eschevarria and Brunson also picked up smaller checks from the AFT’s Illinois affiliate as two of its 40 vice presidents. Jesse Sharkey, the Chicago AFT’s vice president (and Lewis’ major domo on the class warfare front), was paid a tidy sum of $94,850 for his work; as another AFT Illinois vice president, he also picked up a $3,300 check.
Of course, Lewis isn’t the only teachers’ union boss whose paycheck belies her faux progressivism. National AFT President Randi Weingarten (who has had to step her own class warfare rhetoric to comfort the most-ardent traditionalists within the union) was paid $556,981 in 2011-2012, a 13 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. Among other traditionalists, there’s also once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch, whose comfortable job at New York University and speaking fees to adoring crowds augments the money she gained from her former marriage to legendary financier and bureaucrat Richard Ravitch; for all of Ravitch’s posturing against expanding school choice for poor and minority families, she has taken advantage of choice herself by sending her own two children to prestigious private schools.
Certainly your editor doesn’t begrudge Lewis or her compatriots for their paychecks. I don’t begrudge anyone who earns their keep. After all, my family and I have been blessed with abundance that we could have never thought possible. [My mother, who worked so hard as a single mother to raise my siblings and I, along with my in-laws, is also happy.] More importantly, we all carry the hopes, dreams, and ambitions of parents, grandparents, and ancestors who knew that they would never see them fulfilled in their own lifetimes. And it is our job to make those aspirations real for them, ourselves, and our children.
At the same time, as I always say, it’s not about money, but what is done with it that matters most. On this matter, I have to take Lewis and her allies to task. What Lewis and her fellow traditionalists do with the money they control is support amoral policies that condemn the futures of far too many of our children, especially those from poor and minority communities in the Second City and elsewhere.
As seen last year during the Chicago AFT’s month-long strike, Lewis has long ago shown that she is less-interested in improving the futures of children and meeting the demands of high-quality teachers to elevate the profession than in holding on to an old-school industrial union model that damages both and perpetuates the failed policies behind the nation’s education crisis. Lewis’ unwillingness to move away from degree- and seniority-based pay scales to performance-based compensation (as well as demanding pay increases while being unwilling to allow for objective performance management based on student test score growth data), shows that she would rather keep the Chicago AFT’s coffers fat — often at the expense of younger teachers, who are the least-paid in the rank-and-file as well as the first to lose their jobs — than make moves that allow for Chicago to make smart decisions on behalf of children, families, and teachers alike. And in opposing the expansion of public charter schools, as well as remaining silent about enacting Parent Trigger provisions that could allow families to take control of failing schools, Lewis and the union has shown that they are far more-concerned with self-preservation than with expanding high-quality school opportunities.
This isn’t to say that Lewis (along with her fellow AFT and NEA leaders) doesn’t think she cares for the lives and futures of children. It is that she would rather continue to protect low-quality and incompetent teachers than help poor and minority kids get a high-quality education (and remove the dreck that good-and-great teachers also want out of classrooms). it’s that Lewis would rather blame school leaders for not removing failed teachers than admit that the practices she and her allies defend — from traditional pay scales, to reverse-seniority layoff policies — contribute to the problem. And in arguing that poverty is the root cause of educational underachievement — instead of admitting the consequences of the failed policies they defend — Lewis would rather engage in excuse-making (as well as ignore the great examples of schools, traditional, charter and private, who are helping kids reach brighter futures) than join reformers in transforming the schools at the heart of the lives of children for the better.
Lewis would be better off playing a more-productive role in building brighter futures for all children, especially in Chicago, than posturing about being a part of the downtrodden when that is clearly not so.
Update: Lewis complains on Twitter that DN’s “numbers are wrong”. Given that the data comes from Chicago, Illinois, and national AFT filings, the reporting stands.