Anyone who has ever attended the Congressional Black Caucus’ Annual Legislative Conference knows at least one thing about it: It is dominated by the dollars and the presence of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, which have poured $331,450 into the outfit’s foundation arm in 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 alone. As a result, this year’s showcase, like those in previous years, will feature such events as a day-long “Professional Development Series” that will serve as opportunities for the Big Two unions to preserve their declining influence over education policymaking.
Certainly Congressional Black Caucus should look askance at its practice of continually taking money from (and accepting the presence of) two of the most-ardent defenders of policies and practices — from near-lifetime employment and dismissal rules that keep laggard and criminally-abusive teachers in classrooms, to opposition to expanding charter schools and school choice — that have harmed generations of black children. There is no reason for the unchallenged presence of NEA and AFT at the conference.
At the same time, as much of the reason why NEA and AFT have so much unquestioned presence at Congressional Black Caucus’ conference — as well as other black events — lies with the failure of school reformers to make themselves present in the places where black leaders and those whom they represent can be found. You can’t expect to advance and sustain systemic reform if you do not build ties to the organizations and communities who can help make it possible.
Clearly not all reformers have ignored ALC. Last year, Teach for America teamed up with District of Columbia Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to host a panel on bringing diversity to the nation’s teaching corps. This year, UNCF has put together its own panel at the conference. Both groups deserve plenty of credit for realizing that you have to meet people where they are in order to transform American public education for all children.
But the bad news is that beyond these two organizations, the presence of reformers at CBC is slim to none.
Save for media commentator Roland S. Martin (who serves on the board of StudentsFirst) and President Barack Obama, there will likely be few prominent reformers of any background at the annual Phoenix Awards dinner. Not one big-named reform outfit will have a booth at the conference’s exhibition hall. Nor will you see any of the major school reform philanthropies mentioned alongside the Big Two (or major corporations such as Coca-Cola) as sponsors of this year’s confab. Meanwhile reform-oriented think tanks such as American Enterprise Institute didn’t even make an attempt to hold at ALC events such as one it is putting on today on reform efforts in New Orleans.
But this failure to be present extends beyond annual chat-and-chews. Talk to any staffer working for a black congressional leader and you will hear stories about charter school advocates never bringing black parents to constituent meetings, or about the fact that they can never find a black or Latino staffer with whom to chat about pending legislation.
This lack of presence by reformers is stunning. More importantly, it is also short-sighted. This is because presence matters.
Presence is the critical first step in building alliances that can help the movement advance and sustain the solutions to the nation’s education crisis that damages the futures of black children the most. This is especially true at the federal level in a time in which the reforms spurred and fostered by the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act 13 years ago are being threatened by the legislative efforts of Congressional and Senate Republicans.
Presence is also important in presenting narratives about the success of systemic reform efforts in building brighter futures for our children — and countering the sophistry of NEA and AFT as well as that of their traditionalist allies. Reformers can’t confront opponents or their arguments if you’re not in there. Which, in turn, means that the movement cannot effectively offer a counter-narrative to those with whom your opponents are building ties.
Presence is key to understanding — and addressing — the challenges that politicians face in any effort to advance choice, Parent Power, and teacher quality reform initiatives. This is especially true with black politicians, who must still deal with old-school civil rights outfits still dominated by veteran teachers still loyal to NEA and AFT affiliates, and school leaders, especially those in Southern and Midwestern states where districts are the most-influential players in politics.
Presence is top priority because it also matters to existing allies. For all the partisanship endemic on Capitol Hill these days, senators and congressmen of both parties still hang out with one another. Sooner or later, a Republican congressman who had defended charter schools will ask his Black Democrat counterpart why he keeps voting against them. And eventually, the movement loses another key ally for our children.
Finally, presence matters because being there shows that reformers care about the communities and families whose children for which we are fighting. As the old saying goes, you must show you care before you can get anywhere. This is true in every setting everywhere, especially with black politicians and communities who have become a little tired of policy of all kinds being done to them.
The importance of presence doesn’t just apply to dealing with black and other minority communities. As we have seen earlier this year with reformers getting caught flat-footed over the opposition from movement conservatives to House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline’s plan to reauthorize No Child (and the antics surrounding its passage since then), the need to be present in circles, including those of ideological opponents outside of education issues, is a necessary precondition to political success.
Reformers can’t simply avoid CBC or any other gathering of black politicians. They have to get into the rooms where they are.
This begins long before ALC by scheduling meetings with staffers, chatting them up about other issues outside of education about which they are concerned, even sponsoring the events themselves. Just as importantly, reform outfits must also address the lack of diversity within their staffs, corporate suites, and boards that lead to such shortsightedness. Democrats for Education Reform took a key step on that front earlier this year when it appointed former Newark mayoral candidate Shavar Jeffries to succeed cofounder Joe Williams as its top boss. Other outfits should tap the wide pool of talent within the movement — including Parent Power activists who don’t hold Harvard degrees.
Finally, reformers could do something as simple as show up for an ALC event over the next few days. Being present will do more good than can ever be imagined for our children.