When it comes to influence-buying, the National Education Association has rarely been especially thoughtful or strategic. The nation’s largest teachers’ union assiduously allies itself with progressive groups, cajoles social justice groups into helping it dress up its agenda, and teams up the notoriously-secretive Democracy Alliance. But it has never been strategic in its spending, especially in focusing on specific cities or states in which locals and affiliates are at risk of losing influence. Nor has it recruited staffers from even-savvier outfits such as the Service Employees International Union. As a result, it has often been less-savvy and less-successful in its gamesmanship than the rival American Federation of Teachers.
But as NEA’s 2015-2016 disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor, along with campaign finance documents, reveals, the union has stepped up its sophistication in its successful spend against a ballot measure in Massachusetts to expand charter schools.
As you know by now, one of the most-prominent efforts to advance systemic reform fell apart last month when 62 percent of Bay State voters voted down Question 2. Thanks to the defeat, children stuck in failure mills and schools that don’t fit their academic and social needs won’t be able to attend any of the 12 charters that state officials would have been allowed authorize every year.
None of this sat well with reformers who long took for granted that the role of the state’s capital, Boston, as an epicenter and example of successful systemic reform. Given the ideological divide within the movement that has emerged in the past five years, internal finger-pointing, especially from reformers outside the state, is bubbling up. Even before Election Day, Robert Pondiscio, the E.D. Hirsch acolyte who now serves as Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli’s attack man, complained that centrist Democrat and civil rights-oriented reformers failed to speak the language or address the desires) of suburban voters who saw no point in expanding choice.
Yet no one within the movement paid attention to one of the key reasons behind Question 2’s defeat: The spending, co-opting, and politicking NEA and its Bay State affiliate (along with that of AFT and its locals) did to rally much-needed opposition.
NEA was in a bit of a disadvantage to start. It didn’t have much support for its effort to quash Question 2 from other players among Massachusetts’ labor unions. One possible reason: The expectation that Marty Walsh, the former union leader, charter school founder, and choice advocate who is now Boston’s mayor, would back it. That the measure had strong support from the Bay State’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, also gave reformers much hope.
But NEA and its Massachusetts Teachers Association had some key advantages going into the political battle — and it started with cold, hard cash. In 2014 and 2015, the NEA affiliate itself spent poured $3 million into its Super-PAC, giving it plenty of money to mount a political onslaught against the measure. More importantly, the union’s strong ties to traditionalist activists on the ground, along with its role as a leading player in Bay State politics, all but ensured that it could rally support against the measure.
One of the groups: Citizens for Public Schools, a coalition of faith-based groups, old-school education associations, and unions that includes AFT Massachusetts and Boston Teachers Union, as well as longtime vassals of the national NEA’s largesse such as FairTest, the state branch of the NAACP, and the Bay State branch of People for the American Way. Together with Citizens for Public Schools and AFT’s units, MTA formed Save Our Public Schools, which would spearhead opposition from traditionalists and districts (known as school committees in Massachusetts) Question 2.
This is where NEA and its vast coffers came into play. By the end of its 2015-2016 fiscal year, the union plunked down $500,000 into Save Our Public Schools, according to its filing with the Department of Labor. This allowed Save Our Public Schools to put on a scare campaign that featured declarations that Question 2 would cause districts to lose their funding. [Of course, no one opposed to Question 2 considered the ridiculous thinking that districts, along with NEA and AFT affiliates, think they deserve to receive money for children they are no longer serving.]
Over the following months, NEA would leverage its coffers and its Ballot Measure/Emergency Crisis Fun to provide Save Our Public Schools with even more mother’s milk. This included a cash infusion of $3.5 million in October, a month before Election Day, according to the Bay State’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Altogether, NEA dumped $5.4 million into Save Our Public Schools, likely its biggest spend on a ballot measure this year. Along with MTA’s $8.4 million in donations, the union accounted for 80 percent of the $17.2 million (including in-kind donations) spent to defeat the measure.
NEA also made sure to provide additional subsidies to MTA. It gave $3.7 million to the Bay State affiliate in 2015-2016, a six percent increase over the previous year. Those dollars were well-deserved. Without MTA and its president, Barbara Madeloni, putting muscle into opposing Question 2, NEA wouldn’t have gained any victory.
As you would expect, AFT and its units also did its part, though it was NEA that did the heavy lifting. The union’s Bay State affiliate dropped $617,949.69 into Save Our Public Schools, while the Boston Teachers Union gave $349,550 to defeat the measure. AFT national dropped $1.7 million into the opposition, as well as contributed $36,115 to the Boston local’s political action committee and $196,506 to that of the state affiliate. More importantly, the union gave financial support to like-minded groups. This included $31,500 to the Boston Youth Organizing Project, $31,250 to Center for Labor Education and Research’s Boston Education Justice Alliance, and $31,250 to Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. All three groups, naturally, endorsed Save Our Public Schools’ fight against Question 2; Jobs with Justice took a step further by contributing $8,000 to Save Our Public Schools.
To tie the effort to expand charters with Wall Street — and win support from progressives who irrationally hate anything tied to capitalism — MTA and AFT Massachusetts filed a complaint with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission accusing Baker of backing Question 2 in order to win support from private-equity players who have long been key philanthropists in the school reform movement. The complaint is the epitome of frivolity — the only evidence provided was a commercial the governor did on the referendum — but it was more than enough to give reasons to progressives in the state to turn their backs on children.
All the spending, co-opting and politicking done by NEA and AFT achieved results. By Election Day, reformers lost a potential supporter in Walsh, who took to the pages of the Boston Globe to oppose Question 2. Besides remembering that he runs the traditional district, Walsh also wants to keep his job and doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of the Boston AFT.
Baker’s presence in backing the measure backfired with Bay State Democrats, whose state committee voted to oppose the measure. In the process, the state party, along with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the state’s congressional delegation, effectively went to war against centrist Democrat reformers including the state’s powerful house speaker, Robert DeLeo, as well as former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his successor, John King (who founded a charter school in Boston’s Roxbury section).
With all but a few key players within the Democratic machinery opposing Question 2, the measure all but doomed.
The defeat won’t likely stop reformers from working to expand charters. After all, they came close to doing so earlier this year when state senators approved a bill that would have allowed more of them to open in exchange for increased funding for districts. But the defeat at the ballot box, despite outspending NEA and its allies by $9.6 million ($26.8 million versus $17.2 million) hurts reformers to no end. They are now forced to think through how they can build stronger support for school choice, both on the ground and among policymakers who must remember that they depend on NEA and AFT money to keep their phony baloney offices.
As for NEA? The Big Two union’s success in Massachusetts gives it a possible blueprint for beating back reform efforts at the state level, which is especially important in the age of the Every Student Succeeds Act and an incoming Trump Administration and Republican-controlled Congress that will give it less consideration than ever. Whether or not NEA will embrace those lessons — or if they can even be applied in the Republican-dominated states in which most of its affiliates and locals are located — are different questions altogether.
Dropout Nation will provide additional analysis of the NEA’s financial filing later this week. You can check out the data yourself by checking out the HTML and PDF versions of the NEA’s latest financial report, or by visiting the Department of Labor’s Web site. Also check out Dropout Nation‘s Teachers Union Money Report, for this and previous reports on NEA spending.
Yesterday, National Education Association filed its 2015-2016 financial disclosure with the U.S. Department of Labor — and once again, the nation’s largest teachers’ union spent big to preserve its influence over American public education.
NEA spent $138 million on lobbying and contributions to supposedly likeminded organizations during its last fiscal year. That’s a 5.3 percent increase over influence-buying levels in 2014-2015. This, by the way, doesn’t include another $46.5 million in spending on so-called representational activities, which almost always tend to be political in nature; that’s a 16 percent increase over levels in the previous year.
One of union’s key spends was on its own Super-PAC, NEA Advocacy, which was a key player in the Democratic National Committee’s effort to retain the White House and regain control of the U.S. Senate. It poured $12.2 million into NEA Advocacy in 2015-2016, a 40 percent increase over the $8.7 million given to it during the previous fiscal year. As OpenSecrets notes in its most-recent analysis of the Super-PAC’s finances, NEA funneled most of that money in it to other Super-PACs and 527 committees. This included $300,000 to American Bridge 21st Century (another recipient of NEA funding), and $774,670 to Kentucky Family Values, which unsuccessfully fought to stop Republicans from winning control of the Bluegrass State’s legislature.
As you would also expect, NEA also poured money into Democracy Alliance, the ever-the secretive progressive outfit which has become a major player in national and Democratic Party politics. NEA Executive Director John Stocks chairs the organization’s board of directors. The union gave $1.6 million to the outfit, its Committee on States, and its State Engagement Fund in 2015-2016, a seven-fold increase over the previous fiscal year. Given how poorly Democrats performed this election cycle, you can conclude this was money not well spent.
Meanwhile NEA spent plenty on other outfits within the wider Democracy Alliance network. It poured $200,000 into David Brock’s Media Matters for America, ladled out $225,000 to Progress Now, put $187,654 into the Advancement Project (which has been a partner with NEA and AFT in opposing systemic reform), and handed out $25,000 to longtime beneficiary Netroots Nation. NEA also spent $627,543 with Catalist, LLC, the data-mining outfit for the Democratic National Committee that is a lynchpin in Democracy Alliance’s campaign efforts. Again, in light of Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton’s defeat at the hands of Donald Trump this month, NEA may need to reconsider where it spends its cash.
The biggest recipient within the Democracy Alliance network is Center for Popular Democracy, whose board includes American Federation of Teachers President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten. NEA gave the outfit and its political action fund $591,350 in 2015-2016, a 3.7 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. [AFT itself gave the outfit $373,000 during its last fiscal year.] That’s more money to help NEA and AFT in their effort to oppose the expansion of public charter schools and other forms of choice.
Meanwhile NEA continued to co-opt progressive and social justice groups in its effort to defend the policies and practices that finance its operations. For NEA, the dollar amounts to each group can often be small compared to its annual revenue. But for the recipient groups, many of which are always cash-strapped and dependent on the kindness of bigger players, the dollars often influence the direction of their advocacy. Why? Because philanthropic groups and unions such as NEA prefer to finance programmatic activities such as advocacy rather than subsidize the organization’s administrative and other back-office operations; often, programmatic staff will keep their jobs even as nonprofits lay off other staff. As a result, NEA can ensure that its vassals do its bidding.
The union doled out $140,000 to Center for Media and Democracy, the outfit behind PR Watch and ALEC Watch, the latter of which is likely favored by the union since it focuses on the conservative state policymaking outfit. It also gave $100,000 to the Progressive Inc, the parent of the news outlet that counts Jeff Bryant of Campaign for America’s Future (a longtime NEA dependent) and Julian Vasquez-Heilig among its contributors. That’s plenty enough for freelance fees to put into the pockets of Bryant, Vasquez-Heilig and their fellow-travelers. The union also handed another $50,000 to Independent Media Institute, the parent of progressive media outlet Alternet.
The union gave $148,800 to Change Corps, which provides training to progressive activists, provided $65,000 to the Tides Foundation’s Advocacy Fund, and handed off $35,000 to the Opportunity Institute. NEA also gave $75,000 to Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, and $25,000 to Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
NEA put $550,000 into Sixteen Thirty Fund, a endowment developed by former Clinton Administration mandarin Eric Kessler’s Arabella Advisors. NEA also gave $62,657 to New Venture Fund, another outfit with ties to Kessler. Working to stop efforts by reformers and pension reform advocates to address virtually-insolvent retirement plans, NEA also gave $160,000 to National Public Pension Coalition. The union put $397,500 into America Votes, the progressive group whose “partners” include AFT and Center for Popular Democracy’s action fund; handed $135,000 to Campaign for America’s Future; ladled $100,000 to Corporate Action Network; and gave $50,000 to New York Communities for Change, a longtime beneficiary of rival union AFT’s largesse.
NEA even gave $125,000 to Center for American Progress — even though it is one of the foremost players in the school reform movement. It helps that the latter is key to the Democracy Alliance network of nonprofits and political action outfits.
For the first time in two years, NEA didn’t give any money to Schott Foundation for Public Education and its political action fund. Given how little mileage the union got from working with the once-respectable advocate for transforming education for young black men, it’s probably for the best. Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and old-school civil rights group NAACP (which managed to garner publicity favorable to union with its resolution calling for a moratorium on the expansion of charters) also didn’t collect a check from NEA for the first time in quite a while.
Meanwhile NEA worked on co-opting other minority advocacy groups. It gave $65,000 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the coalition of African-American members of Congress; put $94,000 into the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, which serves the same role for Latino members; and gave $15,000 to MALDEF. The union also gave $20,000 to Institute for Asian Pacific American Leadership and Advancement, and put $5,000 into National Council on Educating Black Children. Building ties with gay, lesbian and transgender activist groups, NEA gave $50,000 to Human Rights Campaign, and $50,000 to Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
It even managed to give $50,000 to Smithsonian Institution for the newly-opened National Museum of African-American History and Culture. That was a very smart thing to do, one that some reformers should have also done.
Meanwhile NEA is looking to build support among teachers and families for its agenda. It gave$12,460 to the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, allowing the union to take advantage of the popularity of teachers (and avoid the general disdain toward it and AFT). Another $36,700 was given to the National Teacher Hall of Fame, while $86,242 went to Institute for Education Leadership. Meanwhile NEA gave $150,000 to Parents Together Action, an outfit that is attempting to co-opt the Parent Power movement; while it put down $61,031 to Parent Teacher Home Visit Project.
As for the usual suspects: NEA gave $50,000 to FairTest (also known as National Center for Fair and Open Testing), the leading outfit in opposing the use of standardized tests, the data from which can be used in evaluating the teachers in NEA’s rank-and-file. It also gave $250,000 to the National Education Policy Center through the University of Colorado-Boulder’s foundation. It provided $398,000 to National Board for Professional Teaching Standards; poured $397,036 into Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation, the group that represents the nation’s woeful university schools of education; put $395,120 into Barnett Berry’s Center for Teaching Quality; and handed off $275,000 to the Republican Main Street Partnership and its Main Street Advocacy Fund.
NEA gave $250,000 to Economic Policy Institute, while handing $100,000 to its other go-to research ally, Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. The union also gave $114,000 to Learning First Alliance, and put $150,227 into Education Law Center.
What about NEA’s top brass? The union’s president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, collected $512,504 in 2015-2016, a 23 percent increase over the previous year; she can get herself some new Gretsch Chet Atkins. Her number two, Becky Pringle, was paid $434,738, a 17 percent increase; while Secretary-Treasurer Princess Moss pulled in $436,423, a 1.5 percent gain. Altogether, NEA’s top three leaders collected $1.4 million in 2015-2016, a 17 percent increase over the previous fiscal year.
As we say at Dropout Nation, there is nothing wrong with NEA leaders drawing six-figure sums. But the high salaries (and the corporate ways the NEA and the AFT engage in their defense of traditionalist policies and thinking) should be kept in mind any time Eskelsen Garcia and AFT counterpart Weingarten use class warfare rhetoric to oppose systemic reform of American public education.
As for the union’s staff? Some 403 staffers (out of 556 on the payroll) were paid six-figure sums in 2015-2016; that’s eight more than in the previous fiscal year. One person collecting big checks is Stocks, whose being an NEA staffer is lucrative work. Whether the teachers who are often forced by compulsory dues laws to pay those salaries are benefiting is a different story. $469,501 in compensation is 15.3 percent higher than in 2014-2015. The union’s general counsel, Alice O’Brien, picked up $255,603, a 5.3 percent increase over the previous year; while top lobbyist Marcus Egan collected $193,407, a 6.3 percent increase. As always, being an NEA staffer is lucrative. Whether the teachers, often forced by compulsory dues laws to pay those salaries, are benefiting is an open question.
Dropout Nation will provide additional analysis of the NEA’s financial filing later this week. You can check out the data yourself by checking out the HTML and PDF versions of the NEA’s latest financial report, or by visiting the Department of Labor’s Web site. Also check out Dropout Nation‘s Teachers Union Money Report, for this and previous reports on AFT and NEA spending.
There is little good news these days for the New York State United Teachers, the financially-strapped state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association.
Last week, the Empire State’s education department announced that it wouldn’t bow to the union’s demands to reduce time for the battery of reading and math exams from three to two days, defeating its long-term goal of getting rid of the objective data that can be used to measure school (and eventually, teacher) performance. Earlier this month, a judge in Erie County ordered NYSUT to explain why it was violating state campaign finance laws when it gave $700,000 to New Yorkers for a Brighter Future, a political action committee whose treasurer is longtime union top executive Andrew Pallotta, to help Democrats in their unsuccessful effort to capture a state senate seat — and end Republican control of the legislative body.
Meanwhile the union’s effort to bolster its influence over education policy in the Empire State — one that has succeeded in the past couple of years — was blunted as other candidates it backed for the state senate such as Adam Haber, a school board member running for an open seat, lost big time. With Republicans retaining control of the upper house, NYSUT will have to hope that Gov. Andrew Cuomo — whose desire and willingness to advance systemic reform has waned significantly since embarking on his second term — can continue to do its bidding.
But NYSUT has bigger problems on its balance sheet — and, as it reported yesterday in its annual filing with the U.S. Department of Labor, it starts with its ever-growing pension and retirement liabilities.
The union reported that it accrued $503 million in retirement liabilities in 2015-2016, a 31 percent increase from the $383 million it reported in the previous fiscal year. This includes $288 million in pension liabilities (a 23.6 percent increase over 2014-2015), and $215 million in retiree health obligations (an increase of 43 percent over the previous fiscal year).
If NYSUT were to land in bankruptcy, the union would have just $125 million in assets to cover $415 million in liabilities. Essentially, it would owe $290 million more to its retirees and other creditors than it could ever pay back. Put bluntly, the union is virtually insolvent.
Certainly NYSUT’s retiree obligations are covered by some $24.5 million in investments and U.S. Treasury securities. But that doesn’t even cover a tenth of its insolvency. More importantly, like state and district-run defined-benefit pensions that NYSUT, along with other AFT and NEA affiliates, defend, the capital markets have been in the doldrums; the value of the investments barely budged from levels in 2014-2015. So there’s no way that NYSUT can grow its way out of bust.
The good news for NYSUT is that it added 11,176 rank-in-file in 2015-2016 (to 651,594), a 1.7 percent increase over the previous year. But as with last year, the good news comes with some dark clouds. Most of the growth came in the form of retirees who no longer work in classrooms; the number of retirees paying into the union increased by 2.9 percent in 2015-2016 versus a two percent increase in so-called in-service (or working) rank-in-file. Since retirees pay less into NYSUT coffers than classroom teachers, this means the union is garnering less money. Meanwhile the growth in those categories was offset by a 15 percent decline in rank-in-file from “special constituency groups” and an 8.2 percent decline in agency fee payers, whose dollars are used by the AFT affiliate for its political activities even though they are technically not supposed to be.
Partly as a result of the growth, stilted as is was, NYSUT’s dues collections increased by 5.6 percent over 2014-2015 to $133 million. Overall revenue for 2015-2016 was $258 million, a 4.9 percent increase. The national AFT provided $11.8 million in subsidies to the affiliate, a 15 percent increase over 2014-2015, while NEA subsidized the union to the tune of $2.2 million, a 10 percent increase over the previous year. NYSUT also generated $1.7 million from its Teaching & Learning Trust, a 19 percent decline over 2014-2015; while its Member Benefits affiliate, which like the one operated by AFT, peddles annuities and insurance plans to its members, generated $7 million in revenue, a nine percent decline over the previous fiscal year.
As for the bottom line? NYSUT generated $14.2 million in surplus in 2015-2016, a nearly four-fold increase over the $3.8 million in surplus generated in the previous year. This is the fourth straight year NYSUT has been in the black despite spending slightly more in 2015-2016 than it did last year. Those subsidies from AFT and NEA, along with a 2.8 percent increase in dues paid by classroom teachers to the state affiliate, definitely helped the bottom line.
Since NYSUT isn’t putting much of its money toward paying down its pension liabilities, it is spending it on influence-buying. The union spent $99.6 million in 2015-2016 on lobbying, contributions to like-minded groups and spending on almost-always political “representational activities”. This is a 1.8 percent decrease over the previous fiscal year.
Among the beneficiaries of NYSUT’s largesse: Alliance for Quality Education, which has long been a reliable vassal of the affiliate and the parent national union. It collected $67,500 from the union last fiscal year, little more than half of what it received in 2014-2015. Citizen Action of New York, another key vassal, received even less from NYSUT; the $60,720 it received in 2015-2016 is 78 percent less than what it received in the previous year. Strong Economy for All Coalition, which counts Citizen Action and AQE as key players, garnered $250,000 from the union (or half of the money it got in 2014-2015), while Education Law Center picked up $50,000 (or 50 percent less than its subsidy from the union in the previous fiscal year).
As for the Working Families Party, the progressive political outfit whose standardbearer, Zephyr Teachout, strongly challenged Cuomo during his re-election bid two years ago? It collected $50,000 from the union, a 20 percent increase over the previous year. The Fiscal Policy Institute, another NYSUT vassal, collected $146,000 from the union in 2015-2016, a 14-fold increase over the previous year.
As in 2014-2015, most of NYSUT’s political spending went to advertising and messaging. It spent $232,500 with Visuality on ads and social media activity, spent another $1.5 million with Shorr Johnson Magnus, and dropped $124,733 with Lamar Companies on billboards. Working the national AFT’s ties with both the Democratic Party and the ever-secretive Democracy Alliance, the union also spent $33,150 with the coalition’s data outfit, Catalist LLC.
On the public relations front, NYSUT spent $16,350 with flack outfit City& State, and $14,000 with Campbell & Associates. Both spends are considerably less than in 2014-2015. NYSUT’s biggest public relations spend was on the United Federation of Teachers’ Teacher Union Day reputation-repair effort; the union gave $1.4 million to the campaign.
The Teacher Union Day effort was part of NYSUT’s $15.5 million in subsidies to the Big Apple local; this is a 13 percent increase over 2014-2015. The increase proves that UFT’s effective takeover of the affiliate last year, in which it ousted longtime president Richard Iannuzzi and replacing him with the more-agreeable Karen Magee, is working well for the nation’s largest local and its ambitious president, Michael Mulgrew. NYSUT also helped AFT national meet its goals by pouring $436,429 into its Northeast Region Organizing Project.
Oddly enough, as part of its political activities, NYSUT also spent $137,543 with temporary staffing outfit TrueCorps, which works with progressive outfits to provide campaign workers without putting those people onto payroll (and thus, avoiding full-time hires and their healthcare costs). This should go down really well with other unions and activists who have pushed against the use of temp staffing by private-sector firms looking to avoid full labor costs.
As for the honchos: NYSUT President Karen Magee collected $294,729 in 2015-2016, a 2.4 percent increase over the previous year, while Pallotta, who essentially controls the union on behalf of UFT, collected $259,351, a 1.4 percent increase. Executive Director Thomas Anapolis was paid $245,548, a 3.6 percent increase over his compensation in 2014-2015.
NYSUT’s political fortunes are okay for now even as it remains virtually insolvent. But that may not last for long. Donald Trump’s successful campaign for the American Presidency portends the likelihood of a U.S. Supreme Court appointee who will likely rule in favor of ending the ability of the affiliate and its parent unions to forcibly collect dues from teachers regardless of their desire for membership. There is already talk of a revival of a tort similar to the Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, which became moribund earlier this year after the death of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia led to a split-decision by the panel. If this happens, NYSUT will have to actually convince teachers to finance its operations. And that will bring its pension woes even more to the forefront.
Featured photo: NYSUT President Karen Magee (at July’s Democratic National Convention) presides over an AFT and NEA affiliate facing financial and political uncertainty.
Wednesday’s commentary on Donald Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education certainly garnered both praise and scorn from those in the reform movement. Today, however, I’ll address two criticisms lodged against myself and other reformers who have also expressed concern about the Amway heiress and school reform philanthropist’s place in the incoming administration.
One criticism? That your editor is being unreasonable in my critique that DeVos is unlikely to be able to strongly defend the futures of children black and brown because the President-Elect, along with incoming senior adviser Steve Bannon and Attorney General appointee Jeff Sessions have long, documented records of racism, anti-Semitism, and nativist sentiment. From where they sit, DeVos’ advocacy for advancing school choice, both as Chairman of American Federation for Children as well as in her philanthropy, should more than make up for such concerns. Besides, as they are concerned, someone has to oversee federal education policymaking, and it may as well be her.
This is all well and good in theory. But as I noted on Wednesday, good intentions and even past service are slender reeds against the machinations of immoral and evil people. This has proven true, not only in the history of American public education, but in the history of the 20th century in general.
Beyond that, a key problem with DeVos is that she hasn’t been willing at all to stand up for black and brown children in the days since Trump won the presidency. When she had an opportunity to immediately demand Trump to apologize for his rank demagoguery against immigrant and minority children during his campaign, DeVos didn’t take it. In fact, she immediately declared that AFC would work with Trump’s administration to advance choice.
While other reformers, including Democrats for Education Reform, condemned Trump’s bigotry (as well as his appointments of Bannon and Sessions) to the administration, DeVos remained silent. Even when she accepted Trump’s nomination, DeVos didn’t take a stand and declare a willingness to oppose any effort by the administration to scale back the federal government’s constitutional role in protecting the civil rights of its most-vulnerable children.
To say that DeVos’ silence is a problem is to be kind. Here’s the thing: If DeVos cannot condemn bigotry before she takes an office, can she be expected to do so afterward? Especially given concerns among the families of gay and lesbian children about the longstanding efforts of DeVos and her family against the recognition of their right to civil marriage, people are rightfully concerned that she will not be a stalwart champion for all of our children.
Another criticism is that your editor and others are essentially fighting against expanding school choice because we believe that working with the future Trump Administration means compromising our promise to defend all children. From where they sit, if the new regime is willing to advance vouchers, charters, and other forms of choice, why shouldn’t we assist it?
Your editor has already argued that this kind of ends-justify-the-means logic will damage the effort to expand choice, especially with the very minority communities for which we are championing. As Greg Forster of the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation notes in a piece on DeVos’ nomination (as well as an earlier commentary), the failure to openly, honestly, and consistently call out Trump’s bigotry (as well as that of Bannon and Sessions) will also damage support for choice within the overall school reform movement itself.
Why? This is because the success of the movement itself — especially the expansion of choice — has (and continues to) depend on a bipartisan and socioeconomically diverse coalition that includes progressives, Centrist Democrats, and black civil rights activists for whom bigotry against children black and brown is a major concern. School choice activists (along with conservative reformers) cannot “turn a blind eye to racism” or ignore Trump’s long record of bigotry without risking loss of support for their efforts. Declares Forster: “My biggest fear is that the school choice issue will become tied to Trump... a notorious racist who discriminates against blacks in his businesses, said a judge of Mexican ancestry couldn’t judge him impartially… and refused, three times, to repudidate the KKK when first asked to do so.
This is what makes the presence of DeVos in the Trump Administration so troubling. Because of her advocacy for school choice, her presence alongside Trump (as well as Bannon and Sessions) makes it even harder for Black, Latino, and Asian reformers who champion choice to continue doing so without risk of damaging their work with the men, women, and children who look like them. Which means choice advocates will struggle even more mightily against traditionalists who will cleverly use such associations to tarnish charters and vouchers. As I have noted in the past, bad news (including bad studies and associations with evil people) cast longer shadows than evidence of the good.
The good news, as Forster notes, is that there are ways to avoid associating choice with Trump’s bigotry. One way is to focus solely on expanding choice at the state levels, essentially abandoning federal policy until Trump and DeVos leave office. Certainly this means losing key tools in expanding choice, especially against traditional districts and others opposed to allowing poor and minority children to attain high-quality options. Such a move, however, is far better for efforts to expand choice than to associate the movement with a regime that has no interest in helping black and brown children anyway.
As I wrote yesterday, I pray that DeVos will be a strong champion for all of our children, and will challenge the bigotry that will come from Trump’s administration. I know others critical of her associating with the regime will do the same. But the concerns remain outstanding and, given the record, legitimate. So reformers can’t either ignore them. Or remain silent.
Originally published on Thanksgiving Day 2014.
On this day, Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Blessings upon our lives.
More importantly, we thank You for the mighty men and women who work for brighter futures for all of our children.
We are thankful for how You sustain the good and great teachers who work in our classrooms, to the talented school leaders who help them do powerful work in our classrooms.
We are grateful for how You support the Parent Power activists, the policy thinkers, and the builders of cultures of genius that nurture the futures of our kids.
We appreciate how You protect the activists who fight each day so that every child, no matter who they are or where they live, have opportunities for better lives.
We are filled with gratitude over how You give all of us the strength and bounty each day to stand for the children and communities who need our support the most.
As we thank You on this day, we also come to you with the burdens of our hearts, and to aid us on behalf of every boy and girl.
We petition You, Lord, to protect every child who goes without, to provide to every parent struggling to give their kin all they need, to bring transformers for children to every neighborhood.
We ask You, Creator, to give peace beyond understanding to every mother and father who is grieving, to bring hope and light to every place beset by the tears and sorrow brought by evil.
We request from You, Father, the wisdom and energy to continue bending the arc of history toward progress, to help America live up to its place as the City Upon a Hill, to honestly address the ills of the past so everyone can move forward.
We beseech You, God, to help us be the shepherds to our youth that You are to us, to be more like Your Son in every word and deed, to sacrifice as You and Christ did so long ago to grant us salvation from our sins.
And each day, we remember the prayer that Your Son taught us long ago…
Our Father, thou art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.
For ever and ever.
Shavar Jeffries and Democrats for Education Reform deserve praise. So do reformers such as Jonas Chartock of Leading Educators, Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners, and Charles Sahm of the Manhattan Institute. They are among the sadly small number of school reformers who have come out in the past three days to either condemn President-Elect Donald Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon as his next Karl Rove, or went further to condemn the incoming administration for its rampant race-baiting, nativism, and rank bigotry.
Rotherham, Chartock, and Sahm have gone on record with their condemnations of Bannon, the former Breitbart Media Network boss whose appointment has caused an uproar because of his long and ignoble record of anti-Semitism and white supremacist thinking. Jeffries and DFER went one step further on Thursday, especially after it was revealed that two Democrats, former D.C. Public Schools boss Michelle Rhee, and Eva Moskowitz, the former New York City Councilmember-turned-Success Academy founder, were being considered to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education. met with Trump this week to discuss the possibility of becoming U.S. Secretary of Education. [Rhee is meeting with Trump today about the job. Moskowitz met with Trump, but said she turned it down; she did say that she would work with the administration on expanding school choice.]
Declaring in a statement that Trump’s policy proposals and rhetoric “run contrary to the most fundamental values of what it means to be… committed to educating our kids”, Jeffries called on Democrats to refuse any offer to serve in the administration. Declared Jeffries: “Trump gives both tacit and express endorsement to a dangerous set of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes that assault the basic dignity of our children.”
These reformers, along with others who have publicly condemned Bannon and Trump, deserve praise for doing the right thing. You can’t say your goal is to build brighter futures for all children and remain silent (or worse, work for) those whose bigotry works against making that come to pass for our most-vulnerable. Standing against Trump in general is an especially important move after it was announced this morning that U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, whose long record of racial bigotry and nativism kept him from being appointed to a federal judgeship three decades ago, has been nominated to become U.S. Attorney General. Given the role federal courts have played in advancing systemic reform for poor and minority children, and how the Attorney General is in charge of consent decrees over matters such as desegregating schools and expanding choice, the presence of Sessions as the nation’s chief legal officer is especially troubling.
Sadly, most reformers have remained silent. This is especially true of so-called conservative reformers who should be standing up now. Neither Gerard Robinson, the American Enterprise Institute wonk overseeing Trump’s education transition committee, nor his co-chair, Hoover Institution’s Williamson Evers, have spoken about Bannon’s appointment. Other prominent conservative reformers, including Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, have either said they would comment later about Bannon or nothing at all. So far, only Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has offered any kind of condemnation.
One conservative reformer in particular, AEI’s Frederick (Rick) Hess, have even gone in the other direction, criticizing fellow reformers for even discussing bigotry. This morning, in a piece in Education Next criticizing the movement for embracing a more social justice orientation, Hess accused centrist Democrat and civil rights-oriented brethren of a “divisive pursuit of grievance-driven politics”. From where he sits, simply mentioning America’s legacy of racial bigotry, the Original Sin of the nation, in discussing education policy issues “tears at the fabric of our republic and sows ill-feeling and tribalism”.
Hess’ latest diatribe comes on the heels of a piece co-written earlier this week with former Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Chester Finn Jr., in which they called on public school teachers to not mention Trump’s bigotry in their lessons. [Kevin Carey of New America Foundation tore apart the argument in his own counter.] One can argue that Hess (along with Finn) have a point about not injecting politics into classrooms. But that argument is countered by the fact that Hess can’t seem to bring himself to publicly condemn Trump’s or Bannon’s bigotry. In fact, not one word in any of Hess’ pieces (or in other op-eds he has written throughout the Election Season) has been dedicated to calling out their racism, anti-Semitism and white nationalism.
Some reformers have already taken aim at Hess’ piece, while others feel that he has jumped the shark rhetorically. Your editor, on the other hand, isn’t shocked at all by Hess’ unwillingness to address bigotry or any other issue involving race. As Dropout Nation has documented since 2011, Hess (along with AEI) has long expressed his opposition to using education policy and practice to stem race– and socioeconomic achievement gaps. Two years ago, Hess took his myopia on race further by arguing that expanding school choice encourages the personal irresponsibility of poor and minority families at the expense of white and other middle-class households. And along with Petrilli, Hess accused other reformers of race-baiting when they opposed passage of what eventually became the Every Student Succeeds Act.
But the myopia on race isn’t just a problem for Hess alone. As Dropout Nation has documented over and over again, conservative reformers seem to think that any discussion about how America’s legacy of racialism is verboten, and that addressing practices that condemn the futures of poor and minority kids is wrong. That the main publication for their side of the movement, Education Next, is notorious for publishing the likes of IQ determinist Jason Richwine (who was ousted from the Heritage Foundation three years ago for arguing that cognitive ability should be used in deciding who can emigrate to the United States) exemplifies the problem many conservative reformers have on this front.
So it isn’t shocking that conservative reformers are staying silent about Trump and Bannon. Their silence, along with those of other reformers, is both unfortunate and morally indefensible.