There’s one thing that can be guaranteed when reformers and Parent Power activists take on the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association — especially in opposing the near-lifetime employment laws and traditional teacher compensation regimes at the heart of their influence: They will go strike back with any weapon available.
At times, the two unions will engage in the nastiest of rhetoric (including quietly setting up Web sites such as the now-defunct RheeFirst) instead of addressing the facts. Other times, the unions will issue enemies’ lists, as the AFT and its president, Randi Weingarten, has done over the past two years with its reports on money managers that bankroll reform outfits. Occasionally, the NEA and AFT will even offer an honest defense for the policies and practices they support.
But for those times when the two unions want to go nuclear, they can always call upon the outfits they bankroll to the tune of $163 million or so a year (as well as count on fellow traditionalists who oppose anything that smells like reform). The AFT went down this road earlier this week when two of its vassals, the Alliance for Quality Education and New York Communities for Change, put together a Web site, Twitter feed, and 10-page report (if you can call it that) targeting former CNN anchor-turned-school reformer Campbell Brown as being “right-wing, elitist, and wrong”. Why? Because her group, the Partnership for Educational Justice, has (along with the New York City Parents Union) has filed suits modeled off the successful Vergara v. California tort targeting tenure laws that help the AFT fill its coffers and theirs as well.
But because their effort is merely a rehash of previous attacks by progressives in the AFT’s pocket (and, in most cases, based on data planted by the union’s public relations staff and opposition research teams), the nuclear attack goes off like a dud grenade. More importantly, by essentially defending near-lifetime employment laws that subject the very poor and minority kids and households AQE and New York Communities claim to represent, the two groups (along with the AFT) expose themselves as being intellectually and morally bankrupt.
The Web site itself is merely a shell. So it isn’t even worth analyzing. But the 10-page clip job isn’t exactly much better. In it, AQE and New York Communities claim that Brown can’t possibly be concerned about helping poor and minority kids mostly because she is married to Republican political strategist Dan Senor, who serves on the board of StudentsFirst’s New York State affiliate with Third Point Strategies boss Dan Loeb (who is also one of the affiliate’s donors). The fact that StudentsFirst and its boss, Rhee, have long aroused the ire of AFT and Weingarten doesn’t get mentioned by AQE and New York Communities at any point.
The two groups also recycle accusations that Brown has something to hide, including the failure of the Wall Street Journal to mention Brown’s affiliation with StudentsFirst in a piece that ran two years ago, and the unwillingness of Brown to disclose Partnership for Educational Justice’s backers. Of course, the fact that neither AQE nor New York Communities disclose the fact that have been financed by the AFT (through its New York State and Big Apple units, the New York State United Teachers and the United Federation of Teachers) to the tune of $1.7 million between 2010-2011 and 2012-2013, makes all of their outrage seem, well, rather selective.
But it is the sections where AQE and New York Communities attempt to claim Brown is “wrong” for working to abolish tenure and New York State’s teacher dismissal laws where the unintended hilarity begins. They try to prove that Campbell’s point that New York State’s teacher dismissal laws are so onerous on districts that it can take as long as 830 days (or more than two years) to fire a laggard teacher is incorrect because it is based on a six-year-old report from the state school boards’ association that doesn’t account for the minor changes enacted by the Empire State’s legislature two years ago. That the report itself doesn’t offer a countering set of facts on this point means that the two groups (and by extension, their client, the AFT) is conceding that Campbell is correct. That nonpartisan outfits such as California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office have also noted how teacher dismissal laws in other states turn out to be as just as lengthy as New York’s and ultimately, serve as obstacles to removing incompetent and criminally abusive teachers only makes AQE’s and New York Communities’ argument even more laughable.
The defense of near-lifetime employment itself is especially laughable, citing effort by teachers’ unions in Texas against an effort by state board officials to replace the word “slavery” with a less-exact terminology as evidence that tenure allows teachers to fight against “institutionalized bigotry”. This sounds nice until you consider that NEA and AFT affiliates, along with many teachers, have been silent on (and often aid and abet) such policies and practices within American public education as the overuse of suspensions and expulsions that harm the futures of young black and Latino men, alongside young white men from low-income families. In light of that reality, along with the fact that other policies the NEA and AFT defend — including reverse-seniority (or last in-first out) layoff rules — end up leading to black and Latino kids losing young high-quality teachers makes AQE’s and New York Communities’ effort on behalf of the union look even worse than it already appears. Of course, like smoke and fire, if it looks bad, it probably is.
All in all, the AQE’s and New York Communities’ report is slipshod propaganda with footnotes that isn’t worth the cash the AFT and its affiliates have likely paid for it. Honestly, it is as lame as some street punks telling “your mama” jokes. The union and its units would have been better off spending the money on some trashy “My Mom Went to… and all I got was this lousy” t-shirts.
If anything, the report (along with the nastiness coming from traditionalists) may have rallied more reformers and others generally uninterested in education to Brown’s side and that of Parent Power activists looking to end tenure. But AQE’s and New York Communities’ targeting of Brown (and ultimately, that by the AFT) exposes three critical realities.
The first? That the AFT and its allies can’t really make a case for keeping the status quo ante. The Vergara ruling last June once again reminded the public that two decades of data, along with reporting by outlets such as Los Angeles Times, have shown that tenure and teacher dismissal laws work together to “impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students”. Traditionalists also cannot argue against evidence that the laws end up keeping criminally abusive teachers in classrooms. New York Communities and AQE can’t offer a legitimate argument for near-lifetime employment with the likes of now-former Los Angeles Unified instructor Mark Berndt (who had to be paid off by the district in order to end his appeal of his dismissal by the district for what is legally called “lewd conduct” against kids), and former New York City teacher Steven Ostrin (who was only given a six-month suspension and reprimand for sexually harassing students and even propositioning one of his young women students for a striptease).
Secondly: The AFT and its allies can only go after Brown because she is a big-named target who can easily absorb the nastiness. [This is also true in AFT President Weingarten’s class-warfare rhetoric against David Welch, the tech entrepreneur whose Students Matter backed the Vergara tort.] Traditionalists have a much-harder time arguing that Parent Power activists such as the New York City Parents Union and the Connecticut Parents Union, groups who represent families from poor and minority households who are rightfully fighting for brighter futures for their children. Wengarten and the AFT learned this the hard way three years ago when Dropout Nation exposed the presentation by the union’s Connecticut affiliate on how it fought to stop (and then, water down) the Nutmeg State’s Parent Trigger law. Attempts to argue that families are merely pawns of Wall Street donors comes off as condescending, especially when their rhetoric is confronted by the righteous and eloquent indignation of advocates such as Mona Davids and Gwen Samuel. It is even harder to accuse children such as Beatriz Vergara, the name plaintiff in Vergara as being unable to think for themselves.
Thirdly, traditionalists have figured out that they can no longer count on any public support for their aims. This has been clear for a while, especially with efforts of celebrities such as singer John Legend and filmmaker Davis Guggenheim becoming among the most-ardent backers of systemic reform. But Brown’s own efforts, along with the Vergara ruling, and the work that reformers and Parent Power activists have done for the past decade, have even won over the likes of comedian Whoopi Goldberg. That even those otherwise supportive of traditionalists such as John Merrow have argued against continuing near-lifetime employment in its current form as well as even exposed the reality that many teachers treat families as afterthoughts and nuisances, shows how little support the AFT and other traditionalists can muster for their defense of failed policies and practices.
Finally, by even engaging in this exercise, AQE and New York Communities have exposed the underlying reason why so many traditionalists are opposing systemic reform: Because they profit financially and politically from the existing order. Without AFT money, the two outfits would be hard up. For their prime funder, the AFT (as well as the NEA), the end of near-lifetime employment laws means the end of the grand bargain the two unions struck six decades ago with teachers that fills their coffers to the tune of $788 million in 2012-2013 alone. Their claims that they speak for teachers are belied by the fact that they continually defends policies that do nothing to elevate the teaching profession, and, in fact, force high quality teachers to work alongside laggards whose shoddy work makes it harder to do their jobs. Particularly for the AFT, the moves by its Big Apple local and other units to suppress the votes of younger teachers who are the most-hurt by reverse-seniority layoff rules, betrays its claim that it speaks for all teachers.
The AFT and NEA have to fight hard against ending near-lifetime employment and other policies because they have nothing else to offer teachers in their respective rank-and-file memberships. For the AFT, in particular, efforts to provide professional development (including the biannual TEACH conferences and the Share My Lesson venture the AFT launched with British corporate firm TSL Education Ltd) have proven to be unsatisfactory for its members. Because it is so tied to working on behalf of Baby Boomers who are still in control of the union (and are the ones who think they have the most to lose from systemic reform efforts), it has been unable to adapt to the needs of younger teachers who are the majority of membership.
Without near-lifetime employment policies in place (and laws that force teachers to pay into its coffers regardless of their desire to do so), younger teachers would likely flee to professional association-like groups that can better serve their interests. That would likely result in the AFT no longer existing as an enterprise — and its vassals finding themselves without cash.
You can say that AQE and New York Communities have earned their money for the year — and that the AFT has gotten something for its cash. But they haven’t gotten the public relations victory they were seeking. In fact, they have exposed their intellectual disingenuousness, moral bankruptcy, and general inability to sustain arguments for laws that damage the futures of kids which should have long ago been abolished.