Certainly this past election cycle turned out awfully for the American Federation of Teachers. From Andrew Cuomo’s successful re-election as New York Governor in spite of the unwillingness of the union’s Empire State affiliate to back him, to successful re-election campaigns by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich, and Michigan’s Rick Snyder, most of AFT’s effort to stem the decline of political influence over education policy (along with that of the National Education Association) largely amounted to nothing.
But the nation’s largest teachers’ union did manage to score a major victory in Pennsylvania, where the union and its state affiliate poured $732,400 into Tom Wolf’s successful campaign to unseat Tom Corbett as Keystone State governor. That spend, along with the additional $2 million spent by the AFT in Pennsylvania on behalf of its units there, has yielded significant benefits, especially for the union’s Philadelphia local, which is trying to justify its existence.
This included Wolf’s move earlier this month to shunt aside Bill Green as head of the state-controlled board overseeing Philadelphia’s traditional district weeks after it approved the opening of five new charter schools opposed by the union, as well as the appointment in January of Pedro Rivera, a former mandarin for the AFT’s Philly unit, as the state’s chief school officer.
An even bigger win could come within the next four years if Wolf can convince the Republican-controlled legislature to effectively hand back control of Philly’s district either to an elected school board (which the AFT likely prefers) or, more-likely, into the hands of Philadelphia’s mayor. The latter possibility is one reason why the union, along with its City of Brotherly Love unit, is looking to throw its weight in this year’s race to succeed the termed-out Michael Nutter as mayor.
The latest move by AFT came Wednesday when Forward Philadelphia, an outfit backed by the AFT and some of the progressive groups it has co-opted, launched an ad campaign for Jim Kenney, a city councilman who just recently tossed his hat into the ring for the Democratic mayoral nomination. As in most big cities, winning the Democratic nod essentially secures victory in the general election come November. Kenney has already won the backing of the AFT and its local, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, thanks to taking such stances favorable to its interests such as planning to push for a moratorium on charter school expansion and backing Wolf’s plans to hand off control of the traditional district to an elected school board the union can easily control.
Kenney’s willingness to basically do whatever AFT wants ensures that the union will spend plenty on his behalf. This includes much of the $697,240.05 PFT’s political action committee already has in its coffers as of last year, as well as the dollars the AFT’s state affiliate can deploy. More importantly, there are the vast resources the national AFT will put into Kenney’s campaign. After all, AFT’s 527 operation, the Solidarity Fund, still has $530,037 in its coffers, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which is more than enough to fund a string of ad blitzes; the union’s political action committee also has $2.7 million left after its big spend last year on congressional, state, and local campaigns.
You can also expect AFT to use the dues it often forcibly collects from teachers to support Kenney’s election effort. This will including spending big on hosting events at ritzy hotels such as the Sheraton Downtown (where the union hosted three events to the tune of $142,129 in 2013-2014, according to its filing with the U.S. Department of Labor). Weingarten will also make appearances in the city on behalf of Kenney in the days before Election Day as she did in Michigan and other places last year. [Whether or not her presence will do anything other than turn people off is another story entirely.]
To cover all the bases, AFT will also pour even more money into its vassals on the ground. This includes ACTION United, the so-called grassroots group which collected $49,120 from AFT last fiscal year for serving as an ally of the union’s Philadelphia local in its efforts against the financially-strapped district to keep it from closing half-empty schools and overhaul how it compensates teachers; and Philadelphia Student Union, which picked up $20,000 from the union and whose board includes Anissa Weinraub, a PFT union leader. As seen this week with Philadelphia Forward, you can expect AFT to prop up other progressive groups in order to drum up voters on Kenney’s behalf.
If Kenney manages to win office, AFT could clean up even better than it has from backing Wolf’s campaign. Unlike Nutter, who strongly backed reform efforts undertaken by the traditional district and didn’t oppose state control, Kenney would likely work closely with Wolf on making the union’s goals a reality. Even if the state ends up handing the district over to some form of mayoral control, Kenney will likely be as pliant to the AFT’s demands as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Anything to keep charters, which already serve 30 percent of Philadelphia’s school-aged children, from increasing enrollment (and costing the AFT local those precious union dues).
If the AFT’s Philadelphia local has its way, Kenney would also have help from the candidates it is backing for seats on the city council. This includes Sherrie Cohen, the scion of a political family, and Helen Gym, who has long sparred with reformers in the city (and has won the admiration of once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch); both are running for two of five at-large council seats. Even under a mayoral control scenario, AFT could be in position to work councilmembers to support its local’s aims to neuter systemic reform.
Whether Kenney actually succeed Nutter as Philadelphia Mayor remains an open question. The aspirant finds himself running against Lynn Abraham, the city’s former district attorney, whose tough-on-crime reputation (and nickname of Queen of Death) resonates strongly with citizens tired of Nutter’s failures on this and other aspects of quality of life. Abraham refuses to oppose removing the district from state control and, if anything, would prefer mayoral control over an elected board. [She is also neutral on the matter of expanding charters.]
As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported today, a poll taken by Abraham’s campaign shows Kenney trailing her by 16 percentage points. Certainly you must take such polls with a hunk of salt; after all, the Democratic primary won’t be held until May. But in a crowded field like this, Abraham’s name recognition makes it difficult for Kenney to win.
There’s also State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, whose strong and valiant efforts on expanding school choice and charters ensures that he will be backed by school reformers and charter school advocates both in and out of the city. In fact, the possibility of Williams winning office — and his declaration that he wants mayoral control for the traditional district — is one reason why AFT is working overtime on Kenney’s behalf.
Williams also has the backing of public- and private-sector unions such as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners, and the Transportation Workers Union’s Local 234. While Kenney can claim AFT backing as well as that of the Service Employees International Union’s City of Brotherly Love local, Williams’ support from unions saps much-needed support away from Kenney to the dismay of Weingarten and Philadelphia local boss Jerry Jordan. That Williams is also black — a big issue in one of the nation’s most racially-divided cities (one still recovering from the legacy of the notorious Frank Rizzo) — also hurts Kenney’s chances.
For reformers, who haven’t paid nearly as much attention to the Philadelphia mayoral race as they should, it’s time to pay attention to AFT’s machinations. Especially since the City of Brotherly Love’s children (as well as their parents and other taxpayers) need systemic reform more than ever.
Featured photo: Philadelphia mayoral candidate Jim Kenney (far right behind AFT local boss Jerry Jordan) is a key player in the teachers’ union’s bid to stop systemic reform in the City of Brotherly Love.