Once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch has long ago proven that she’ll plumb any depths of intellectual charlatanism and moral demagoguery — even to the point of engaging in blatant race-baiting and politicizing tragedy. So it isn’t shocking to your editor that Ravitch attempted to denigrate the views of former CNN anchor-turned-school reform advocate Campbell Brown in an interview with the Washington Post by claiming that her efforts to end near-lifetime job security for laggard teachers and overhaul teacher dismissal laws aren’t worth considering (and, in fact, “illogical”) because she is “telegenic” and “pretty”. Having already engaged in racism back in May when she wrote that 50CAN honcho and new-era civil rights activist Derrell Bradford should go into “sports or finance or broadcasting”, Ravitch’s sexist remarks against Brown are just another example of her despicable shamelessness.
Your editor doesn’t need to defend Brown. For one, she’s proven more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the likes of Ravitch, and Jonathan Chait of New York has already gone to bat for her. There’s also the fact that Ravitch just doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. Her racial myopia and racialism (along with her dilettantism) has been apparent since she dismissed black families in Ocean Hill-Brownsville attempting to become lead decision-makers in the Big Apple’s traditional district in 1972?s The Great School Wars: A history of New York City schools. So I expect nothing less from the likes of her.
What will be interesting is the reaction from hardcore progressive traditionalists — who as much proclaim themselves to be feminists as they call themselves opponents of racialism — to Ravitch’s latest remarks. If the past is any guide, it is more than likely that traditionalists will not only not call Ravitch on the carpet for her remarks, they will even defend them because Brown is one of those so-called corporate education reformers who are threatening their ideology and finances.
After all, they defended Ravitch after reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute called her out for racialist remarks against Bradford. A year earlier, they defended another demagogue within their camp, American Federation of Teachers honcho-turned-Albert Shanker Institute boss Leo Casey, after he raised the specter of antisemitism against Brown by accusing her of committing a “blood libel” against teachers by calling out the union and its Big Apple affiliate for defending criminally abusive instructors. And they rallied around both Ravitch and Karen Lewis, the president of the AFT’s Chicago Teachers Union, after they both politicized the massacre of 23 teachers and children in Newtown, Conn., as part of their attempt to smear reformers.
So we shouldn’t expect anything less than a broad defense of Ravitch this time around. In fact, you can already see it in the responses to Chait’s critique of her demagoguery. Which proves this reality: Progressive education traditionalists like to claim to be foes of racialism and other social ills — until their own allies commit such nastiness against those whom they oppose. When their allies behave badly, progressive traditionalists will do everything they can to defend them, even when they should be shaming them and demanding them to apologize. As far as these band of traditionalists are concerned, bigotry and sexism is okay so long as it is committed against what they think are the right kind of people.
Simply put, Ravitch’s sleaziness is a reflection of the rather demagogic worldviews of progressives within traditionalist ranks and, in some ways, traditionalists in general, especially when it comes to dealing with minorities and women who dare oppose their failed policies and practices that have harmed kids for decades. Particularly when it comes to blacks, progressive traditionalists only oppose bigotry against them when they follow in lockstep with their ideology. But this shouldn’t be shocking. For all the proclamations from the Ravitch crowd that they care about children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — they continuously defend a system that harms them by perpetuating the legacies of Jim Crow segregation, nativism, and religious bigotry. Which makes all of them anything and everything but progressive.
The nicest thing that can be said about the American Federation of Teachers’ latest convention is that it was an amazing display of desperation by a union that has lost considerable influence over education policy. The union’s vote yesterday to call for President Barack Obama to fire Arne Duncan if he didn’t improve (read: do the AFT’s bidding) as much epitomized the union’s fall from power as the National Education Association’s call for the U.S. Secretary of Education’s resignation a week earlier. The union’s efforts at rallying the rank-and-file — from videos declaring its effort to supposedly “Reclaim the Promise” of American public education, to rah-rah speeches from longtime villeins such as once-and-future California Gov. Jerry Brown and Congresswoman Judy Chu — did little to hide the reality that it is politically weak and financially struggling.
But the most-interesting thing about the AFT convention was how far the union and its president, Rhonda Weingarten, has gone to disavow the effort to triangulate school reformers (and embrace only the weakest versions of school reform measures while keeping the status quo quite ante) it has undertaken for the past five years. It passed a resolution that moves away from the union’s always-tepid embrace of modest teacher evaluation reforms and fully calls for opposition to the use of Value Added and student test score growth data in assessing performance. The AFT also disavowed one of the more-admirable aspects of Weingarten’s tenure (and one legendary leader Albert Shanker’s better ideas), by approving an effort to force states to ditch Common Core reading and math standards if they don’t let AFT affiliates effectively weaken them altogether. And Weingarten herself ditched her own past effort to make the AFT seem reasonable in comparison with the more militant NEA by taking up the combative (though less-inflammatory) rhetoric befitting the likes of Karen Lewis, the bellicose boss of the union’s Chicago local.
None of this should be surprising to any reformer or even to any reporter who has spent enough time covering the fight over reforming American public education. Over the past few months, Weingarten has been doing all she can to remake herself into Lewis lite, and backtracking away from her triangulations. This includes announcing in March that the AFT and its foundation wing would no longer take money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose eponymous founder spoke before the union’s convention four years ago.
But the AFT convention is another reminder that any hopes of teachers’ unions embracing any aspect of systemic reform — or even that NEA and AFT leaders who embrace some form of it can last long within its ranks — is foolish thinking.
One of the more-naive assumptions of some reformers, particularly centrist and even idiosyncratic progressive Democrats within the movement, is that there are some bosses within the NEA and AFT ranks who will willingly embrace, support, and even lead the overhaul of public education. Heartened over the years by occasional calls for change coming from the mouths of Weingarten and by the efforts on the ground by union bosses such as David Cicarella, the president of the AFT’s New Haven, Conn., local to weed out laggard teachers, centrist Democrat reformers argue that these bosses realize that it is in the enlightened best self-interest of their unions to ditch support for the traditional teacher compensation and seniority-based privileges for which they have long advocated.
Such naivete explains why the Obama Administration has continually promoted case studies of reform-minded school leaders working closely with NEA and AFT locals, why Class Struggle author Steve Brill floated the laughable idea of Weingarten becoming chancellor of New York City’s traditional district three years ago, and why organizations such as Educators4Excellence and Teach Plus — which represent younger, reform-minded teachers who now make up the majority of NEA and AFT rank-and-filers (and are staffed by teachers who are themselves centrist and progressive Democrats) — work so hard to aim to lead reform from within union ranks.
Certainly some of this thinking among Democrat reformers is based on their own affinity, both financial and ideological, for unions; after all, the NEA and AFT have long been the biggest funders (and most-important advocates within the ranks) of the Democratic National Committee. But it is also based on some geniuine, if misguided, beliefs: That there are NEA and AFT bosses who can succeed in rallying support for modest measures from everyone, especially Baby Boomers in classrooms, within their respective rank-and-file; and that they are as concerned as reformers about the futures of children and therefore, willing to risk their unions losing influence and money in order to help all kids succeed.
But recent history has proven that these hopes of reform unionism becoming a thing, as the cool kids say these days, isn’t even possible. This was made clear by Weingarten’s willingness to abandon her own moderate reform rhetoric (and her triangulation strategy) during the AFT’s recent national convention. It has also been seen in the ouster of those few NEA and AFT bosses who have dared to embrace modest reforms. This includes Lewis’ successful ouster of predecessor Marilyn Stewart four years ago, and the sacking of the AFT’s Washington, D.C., local boss, George Parker after he negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with now-former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee that embraced performance-based pay plans and all but ditched seniority as a factor in teacher layoffs. It has also been seen in the moves by NEA and AFT bosses backing some modest reforms — Weingarten’s protege and likely successor as National AFT boss, Michael Mulgrew, for one — to ditch earlier pledges in order to keep their phony baloney jobs.
Why can’t NEA and AFT leaders ever be reliable reformers? For one, the two unions are looking after the interests of Baby Boomers, who, despite their dwindling numbers, remain the most-influential within the rank-and-file. Efforts by reformers along with reform-minded (and, in many cases, budget-conscious) governors to make it harder to attain tenure or abolish near-lifetime employment altogether, along with moves to subject teachers to performance-based evaluations, means that they would lose the benefits for which they have long worked. Sure, Educators4Excellence won a few internal battles — including gaining seats on the governing board of the AFT’s Los Angeles local a few years ago. But Baby Boomers — including those within NEA and AFT leadership, and thus (save for Weingarten, who only taught for 122 days at New York City’s Clara Barton High School over a six-year period before becoming an AFT union boss), are also beneficiaries of traditional teacher compensation) are still in clear control of union activity. And they will do what they can to preserve their interests.
Particularly for AFT leaders, including Weingarten and Mulgrew (whose Progressive and Unity coalitions have controlled the union since the 1940s), keeping retiring Baby Boomers happy is especially key to their power. After all, they are leaving classrooms and becoming the retirees these leaders count upon for votes. Mulgrew made this especially clear in January 2013 when he successfully suppressed the votes of younger teachers and (along with more-militant traditionalists among Baby Boomers) by lifting the cap on retiree participation in elections from 18,000 to 25,300; his move was validated three months later when retirees accounted for 22,462 votes, or 52 percent of all ballots returned during the latest local elections. As seen in the cases of Stewart and Parker (and as former AFT bosses such as A.J. Duffy of the union’s City of Angels local admit), even when union leaders want to admit that seniority-based privileges and even near-lifetime employment for teachers are terrible for kids and great teachers alike, admitting this or even agreeing to measures that end them will lead to loss of power.
The consequence of the focus on NEA and AFT leaders on Baby Boomers (and retirees) has a consequence, especially on participation in union activity by younger teachers. For them, the greater concern of NEA and AFT leaders of advocating for reverse-seniority layoff rules that harm their careers leads them to decide that devoting time to union politics isn’t worth doing. That even those few NEA and AFT leaders who advocate for some modest version of systemic reform continually back other policies that do not help younger teachers — including the defense of defined-benefit pensions from which half of newly-hired teachers will never benefit — has also made them apathetic about even bothering with the unions that take so much of their take-home pay. When you also keep in mind that many AFT locals do everything possible to suppress the voices of younger teachers, there is little reason for younger teachers to bother with union politics other than to occasionally hope that the unions are attending to workplace concerns.
For those NEA and AFT leaders who truly support systemic reform, they end up in situations in which they have no active and engaged constituency who can continually support them even at times when they must battle with the hardcore traditionalists opposed to any change. They end up losing their berths, and eventually, end up outside unions in the reform movement. What about the likes of Weingarten and Mulgrew, who are just cynical politicians who don’t really want reform at all? Scandals such as the Connecticut AFT’s presentation on neutering Parent Power efforts, and AFT honcho-turned-Albert Shanker Institute boss Leo Casey’s “blood libel” smear against former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, end up revealing the phoniness of their efforts to both reformers outside the unions and traditionalist Baby Boomers within them. Since they are ultimately concerned with keeping their power, the Weingartens and Mulgrews will abandon their reformist rhetoric when politically necessary.
But there are other reasons why reform unionism is nothing more than illusion.
There’s the fact that the NEA and AFT continue to cling to an old-school model of employee-management relations — borrowed from industrial unions battling with managers who treated employees as little more than mules capable of only singular tasks — that was never really a fit for the kind of work teachers do in the first place. Certainly teaching was never as bad as factory work. But the concerns faced by the mostly-female teaching corps at that time — that they were never paid accordingly for their performance, that their performance couldn’t be measured in any way, that they could be easily fired for just getting pregnant, and couldn’t count on a secure retirement — were definitely realities. This is why the AFT and the NEA fought successfully for near-lifetime employment through tenure, degree- and seniority-based pay scales, and seniority-based privileges that currently make up traditional teacher compensation. And it is why the two unions have worked so hard to make school districts servile to their demands.
But this old-school industrial union mindset, which never really applied to public education, is especially outmoded in an age in which value-added assessment and standardized testing allows for the success of teachers in improving student achievement can be easily measured; the fact that two decades of studies have proven that value-added stands up to scrutiny is one that NEA and AFT bosses, along with their traditionalist allies, try to dismiss without much in the way of proof. The overwhelming evidence that traditional teacher compensation is ineffective in spurring student achievement, and worthless in attracting aspiring teachers and keeping high-quality instructors in teaching proves the uselessness of the NEA-AFT model. But the two unions continue to embrace this model because it is the source of their influence and financial sustenance. The fact that both the NEA and AFT have become so fearful of the implications of last month’s decision in Vergara v. California ending near-lifetime employment and reverse-seniority layoff rules — including the likelihood that teachers, now realizing that the two unions can no longer hold up bargain they struck with earlier generations in the profession — show how tied they are to this outdated model of unionism.
This unwillingness of NEA and AFT bosses to break with their old-school approach becomes especially understandable when you keep in mind that neither union has much to offer to younger teachers in this day and age. Because the two unions have never really succeeded in providing good and great teachers with the kind of professional development they could use to improve upon their talents, neither of them can prove their ability to help elevate the teaching profession. The opposition of the two unions to performance-based pay and objective data-based teacher evaluations using student test score growth data is driven more by the realization that the teacher dismissal restrictions they support are inherently impediments to professionalism than by an ideological belief that standardized testing has no value in measuring teacher performance. Given these two realities, NEA and AFT affiliate can never adopt the professional association or skill trades guild models found in other high-skilled fields; the unions can’t become that which they never were.
Finally, let’s remember that systemic reform efforts, especially those from centrist Democrats, all lead to the weakening of NEA and AFT influence. After all, the efforts of centrist Democrats to implement objective teacher evaluations and revamp tenure have the same effect as efforts by conservative reformers and Republican governors to abolish collective bargaining and end the privilege of unions to force teachers to pay dues into their coffers. Even moving teachers away from defined-benefit pensions also weakens NEA and AFT power. Not only do NEA and AFT affiliates lose the ability to promise teachers that they will get comfortable retirements without contributing a single penny of their own cash, they also lose control they have over pensions through board seats on their governing boards. It is why Weingarten has spent the past two years issuing an enemies list of money managers whose bosses are supporters of reform outfits.
For centrist and progressive Democrat reformers, the AFT’s recent convention is another reminder that their desire for reform-minded teachers’ unions isn’t ever going to pass. If anything, the fact that the AFT and NEA have occasionally given in on reforms after losing battle after battle to the movement shows that the only way to get the unions going in any right direction is to continue weakening their influence. This includes supporting efforts by younger teachers to walk away from the NEA and AFT, and start new professional associations that can address their needs by offering professional development and championing teachers to start their own schools. It also means supporting efforts such as that of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to stop NEA and AFT affiliates from forcing teachers regardless of their membership to pay into their coffers.
At the end of the day, reformers must give up on the fanciful notion that NEA and AFT leaders can embrace systemic reform on anything other than a tepid level.
This should be a happy time for Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten. After all, the American Federation of Teachers boss is in sunny Los Angeles presiding over this year’s convention. She can also claim that it has increased membership by 50 percent (from 848,323 to 1.6 million between 2011-2012 and 2012-2013) even as the rival National Education Association’s ranks declined within that same period. There’s the fact that Dennis Van Roekel’s departure as NEA president makes Weingarten the most-senior leader within the traditionalist camp. And Weingarten can argue that she only has to build upon the AFT’s few successes while her new counterpart as NEA boss, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, is faced with cleaning up Van Roekel’s mess.
During the speech (which featured a talk show host-style walk-through and a less-than-sincere effort at folksiness with her “welcome home” to the crowd), Weingarten complained that reformers and cost-cutting governors have made “threats” to the lives and livelihoods of teachers and others within AFT membership. She intoned that the union would wage retribution against U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other politicians for supporting last month’s California Superior Court decision in Vergara v. California decision. And in a typical bit of class warfare rhetoric, she bemoaned the “political power” of the wealthy (without, of course, daring to mention the $543,150 she collected in 2012-2013 or the AFT’s vast coffers).
Yet none of Randi’s disappointment should be surprising. This is because she and her fellow AFT bosses have plenty to worry about. These days, the union’s influence over education policymaking, as well as its financial fortunes, are in decline.
Weingarten is presiding over the AFT’s convention in the City of Angels just a month after a California judge handed down his ruling in Vergara v. California ending the near-lifetime employment laws upon which the AFT’s influence (and that of the NEA) is dependent. Especially for the AFT, the ruling makes it even harder for the union, which works in the big cities that are the most-fervent hotbeds for revamping traditional teacher compensation and implementing other reforms), to keep the grand bargain it has long struck with Baby Boomers and other teachers to keep their profession the most-comfortable (as well as best-paid) in the public sector. Particularly for Baby Boomers and hardcore progressives within the AFT’s rank-and-file, the ruling is a reminder of how weak the union has become, and that Weingarten’s unsuccessful efforts to triangulate school reformers has, in their minds, contributed to the problem.
There’s also the fact that the AFT, along with the NEA, were harshly reminded that it can no longer count on unquestioned Democratic Party support. Randi wasn’t likely surprised when outgoing House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Member George Miller, long a foe of traditionalists, sent out a letter to his colleagues praising Vergara. But Weingarten was livid when Duncan, the Obama Administration’s point man on education reform, mildly praised the Vergara decision as an opportunity to “build a new framework” for teacher employment that “protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities”. Even worse for Weingarten and the AFT, Duncan didn’t take too kindly to her attempt to shame him into submission; he doubled down on his earlier remarks, arguing that the AFTs (and NEA’s) defense of traditional teacher compensation policies “undercut the public’s confidence in public education.”
The need to boost Democratic Party support — especially given that the AFT (save for its New York State affiliate) has never bothered to cultivate allies among Republicans — explains Weingarten’s announcement today that the union is backing the formation of a Democratic Party pressure group co-chaired by longtime party operative Donna Brazile (whose firm is a recipient of teachers’ union dollars) in order to counter centrist reformers who are now in control of the education policy discussion. Whether or not it will work is another story. After all, Hillary Clinton, who may end up winning the Democratic presidential nomination if she runs for it, helped her husband successfully push for the use of teacher certification tests during his tenure as Arkansas governor in the 1980s. Other likely candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have also been strong reform backers.
Weingarten even learned that even some progressives aren’t on the AFT’s side. Sure, the union can still count on outfits to which it has financed such as Netroots Nation (the latter of which, along with its foundation arm, collected $43,400 from the union in 2012-2013). But the union took a blow last week when former Village Voice writer Wayne Barrett (who has also been a thorn in Weingarten’s side) took aim at the union, its Big Apple local, and even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on the pages of the Daily News for “hijacking the very language of movement politics” in order to keep its influence from waning and its coffers filled. The piece (along with one written this week by former StudentsFirst executive Dmitri Melhorn in The Daily Beast) has once again reminded more-thoughtful progressives that supporting the AFT (as well as the NEA) doesn’t lead to better outcomes for the children and poor families they want to help.
So this weekend, Randi is attempting to use the convention to galvanize the AFT’s campaign to supposedly “Reclaim the Promise” of public education. But given the union’s longstanding support of policies and practices that have harmed kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds attending traditional district schools the union’s locals have long dominated, neither it nor Weingarten can claim to be working to reclaim a promise it never made.
Meanwhile the AFT is attempting to reclaim its financial condition. That’s also a problem.
As Dropout Nation noted back in November, the AFT generated revenue of $321 million in 2012-2013, a two percent decline over the previous year. The decline marks the second straight year of decline. Forced dues collections in the form of a per-capita tax on members at the local level was $144 million, a 17 percent decline over 2011-2012. But even those numbers don’t fully show the union’s fiscal condition. See, the AFT has developed a habit of borrowing massive sums to tide itself over. It borrowed $117 million through its line of credit with SunTrust Bank during 2012-2013, of which all but $2 million was repaid; this was similar to what happened in 2011-2012, when the AFT borrowed $88 million and repaid most of it back. Without the borrowing (which accounted for 36 percent of reported revenue), AFT generated $203 million in 2012-2013, a 15 percent decline over the $238 million generated (excluding debt borrowings) during the previous year.
These tough straits explain why the AFT is proposing a $12 hike in raises by 2014-2015, which will raise just $10 million in new dues, according to a Dropout Nation analysis. This includes kicking some money to a so-called Militancy/Defense Fund that can only be used to finance work stoppages the union deems allowable under its strike policy. So it will rarely be spent, giving the union a nice pool of cash on which to collect interest. Of course, cutting the 198 AFT staffers making more than $100,000 a year, as the NEA has done, is not an option. Yet.
As for the AFT’s membership growth? It isn’t what either Weingarten or her fellow bosses within the union want to claim it to be. Much of the union’s growth hasn’t come from the addition of teachers to the rank and file through its organizing effort, or from the growing ranks of early childhood teachers working in preschool programs. Instead, it has come from striking affiliation deals with unions outside of education such as the United Nations Staff Union and unions representing nurses in the healthcare field. As a result of this, the AFT is less able than ever to claim itself to be the voice of teachers working in the nation’s classrooms. It also means that the AFT is competing against the likes of the Service Employees International Union, a far more ruthless union which has spent most of the last two decades beating back other unions to gain large shares of workers in healthcare, early ed, and other fields.
There’s also the growth that has come from adding part-time rank-and-filers to its rolls: The percentage of one-eighth members increased by a ten-fold, from 3,453 members in 2011-2012 to 33,042 in 2012-2013, while the number of one-quarter members tripled, from 24,484 to 97,571 in that same period. The ranks of so-called associate members have also doubled, from 25,264 in 2011-2012 to 53,212 in 2012-2013. Much of this growth can certainly be attributed to the addition of members who work outside of elementary and secondary education.
As a result, the AFT isn’t adding more of the full-time rank-and-file members it needs to fill its coffers. Just 46 percent of the AFT’s 1.6 million members in 2012-2013 were full-time dues payers either working in classrooms or in other areas; they accounted for three-quarters of the union’s roster a year earlier. What about the rest? Twenty-one percent of AFT members are retirees no longer working in classrooms; the better for Weingarten and her allies within the Progressive coalition that controls the union (as well as runs locals such as the United Federation of Teachers in New York City) to keep it under their thumb. [By the way: The AFT's decision to recognize the retirees is a big reason why the union's membership doubled between 2011-2012 and 2012-2013.] Another 12 percent of members are half-members. That’s no so good: Like the quarter-members and others, they don’t pay enough into the union’s coffers to keep it afloat.
This isn’t shocking. The long-term costs of virtually-insolvent defined-benefit pensions that the AFT has defended (and through its affiliates, often control through board seats) is weighing heavily on districts and states. This, along with woes from the seven-year-long economic malaise, and the retirement of Baby Boomers, is resulting in fewer teachers (as well as other school employees) on the job. The successful efforts by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to end collective bargaining and the ability of teachers’ unions to force instructors to pay into their coffers regardless of their desire to join their rosters has also been hurtful. The AFT’s Wisconsin affiliate was particularly hard hit, losing 63 percent of its members, and being forced into merging with the NEA’s Badger State affiliate in order to survive.
But for the AFT (as well as the NEA), the worse is likely yet to come. The U.S. Supreme Court has already signaled in its decision in Harris v. Quinn that it will probably reverse the precedent set in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education granting public-sector unions the privilege of forcing workers regardless of membership status to pay into its coffers. For the AFT, this may mean a 25 percent decline in membership leading to a $36 million hit to its revenue line. Considering the AFT’s not-so-great fiscal condition (including a $14 million deficit last year), such a loss would be devastating.
Even without a reversal of Abood, the AFT could lose money and clout if younger teachers, who now make up the majority of rank-and-file members, leave the union for professional membership associations that eschew the old-school union approach it embraces. Given their frustration with the AFT’s defense of seniority-based privileges such as last in-first out that impede their career progress, anger with the efforts of locals such as UFT to rig elections in ways that favor retirees over teachers still in classrooms, and dismay with the union’s unwillingness to embrace a professional development model that elevates the profession, they have little reason to stay in its fold. And when they begin noticing that the union’s growth in other sectors outside of education is coming at their expense (as some traditionalists already have) they will agitate for something better.
The only way the AFT can keep those teachers is by embracing the skilled tradesman model of the pre-Industrial Revolution era at the heart of the medical and legal professions. This includes providing professional development to in place of what is offered by districts, championing teachers to start their own schools and programs to address the education crisis, and launching alternative teacher training programs similar to those offered by Teach For America. But that requires the AFT to embrace systemic reform — and that won’t fly with the Karen Lewises and other hardcore unionists among Baby Boomers in the ranks who want the union to fight harder for traditional teacher compensation. The fact that Weingarten’s efforts on that front — including the biannual TEACH conferences and the Share My Lesson venture the AFT launched with British corporate firm TSL Education Ltd — have not been satisfactory to members show the inability (and the unwillingness) of the union to truly adapt to meet the needs of younger teachers.
With Weingarten being unable to revamp the AFT in ways that will actually lead it to live up to its motto of being a union of professionals, and incapable of accepting the reality that the policies it defends can no longer stand (and, in fact, are immoral and intellectually indefensible), there is little for her to celebrate. Randi may be better off playing a certain Rolling Stones song and reminiscing about her union’s good old days.
Updated to note the proposed dues hike.
Your editor didn’t bother paying much mind to last week’s call by the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly for Arne Duncan’s resignation as U.S. Secretary of Education. For one, your editor was more-concerned with spending time with his lovely wife and fast-growing son during the Fourth of July weekend than with anything dealing with the union. The fact that the NEA’s call for Duncan’s resignation comes two years or so before he actually steps down from the job as part of the end of the Obama Administration’s term-limited tenure also makes the demand especially silly.
But what got your editor’s attention is the response to the resignation call from both Duncan and the Obama Administration. It was clearly not to the liking of either the NEA or other traditionalists long-opposed to the administration’s reform efforts. Duncan simply brushed off the NEA — and actually pointed out the lack of credibility the teachers’ union even has among its own rank-and-file membership — when he said that “I always try to stay out of local union politics” and that “I think most teachers do, too”. As for the White House? The president’s flacks didn’t bother to comment at all.
There are certainly some national reporters outside the education beat (along with a few newbies within it) who are finally, belatedly acknowledging what Dropout Nation and others have pointed out for at least the past six years: That neither the NEA nor the American Federation of Teachers can count on the Democratic National Committee for unquestioned support. So the NEA’s call for Duncan’s resignation is about as newsworthy as the fact that the union’s longtime second-in-command, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, was formally anointed as Dennis Van Roekel’s successor as its overlord.
At the same time, the NEA’s desperate move — along with the Obama Administration’s response to it — is noteworthy for this important reason: It epitomizes how far the NEA’s influence over education policy (as well as that of the AFT) has declined at the federal level as well as within states.
Four decades ago, the NEA wouldn’t have even had to even go so far as issue a call for Duncan’s resignation. It had more than enough influence at the federal level to beat back all but the most modest of reform proposals. Thanks to the role the NEA and the AFT has long played as the biggest financiers of political campaigns at both the state and federal levels, the two unions could merely call in a favor from a senator or representative to weaken (if not always block) any administration’s reform plans. The strong ties the two unions had to Democrats and some Republicans in the executive branch also meant that the unions could kill off the most-radical of reform plans before they moved beyond bull sessions.
But while the NEA (along with the AFT) rested comfortably on its laurels, the school reform movement began its emergence. The tax revolts of the 1970s, along with school funding lawsuits, led states to take greater responsibility for financing education. This, in turn, aroused the interest of chambers of commerce and other business groups in southern states concerned with the nation’s education crisis. These groups would then team up with governors such as Bill Clinton in Arkansas and Lamar Alexander in Tennessee to begin the push for the first wave of reforms. By 1986, those efforts, along with the Reagan Administration’s publication of A Nation At Risk, spurred the creation of some 250 state and local panels working on reform.
By the 1990s, these efforts began to be embraced by big-city Democrat mayors such as John Norquist in Milwaukee, Richard Daley in Chicago, and Anthony Williams in Washington, D.C., who would then launch school voucher initiatives, take over existing districts, and launch charter schools. Young urbanites, collegians concerned with education, and minority families, many of whom voted Democrat, would also begin to push for reforms, even starting outfits such as Teach for America, the Knowledge is Power Program, and Black Alliance for Educational Options. These organizations, their leaders — and in the case of Teach For America, their alumni — would eventually become key players in education policymaking at the federal, state, and district levels.
Meanwhile reform-minded governors began ascending into higher political office. Clinton, who had launch the first effort to use testing to weed out low-performing teachers while in Arkansas, would support modest reforms once he became president. The Improving America’s Schools Act, the reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, blessed and supported the launch and expansion of charter schools, as well as provided financing for states such as Texas to develop curricula standards. Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, would build upon Improving Schools Act (and upon the reform efforts he and other reform-minded governors undertook) by successfully convincing Congress to pass the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.
While reformers gained influence, the NEA (along with the AFT), simply hoped that it and its allies could remain dominant over education policymaking. In 1997, the NEA’s public relations counselors, the Kamber Group, implored the union to go into “crisis mode.” by answering reformers and beating back their ideas. This didn’t happen. By 2005, four years after Bush convinced Republicans and Democrats (including then-Sen. Edward Kennedy, a longtime ally of teachers unions) to transform the Improving Schools Act into No Child, the NEA finally moved to beat back reformers by spending heavily on supposedly like-minded groups who can amplify its message. Between 2005-2006 and 2010-2011, the NEA increased its contributions to such groups from $4 million to $86 million. But while some outfits such as the Economic Policy Institute were willing to do the NEA’s bidding, other outfits (including Center for American Progress and the National Council of La Raza) ended up being some of the biggest supporters of systemic reform.
By 2008, the NEA’s influence (along with that of the AFT) was in decline. That’s when the union, along with the AFT, made its biggest strategic error: It backed Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination over that of Obama. With Obama able to win office without teachers’ union support — and with Obama, a supporter of charter schools, having strong relations with reformers — his administration had a freer hand in advancing reform. The resulting efforts the administration has undertaken — including (the sensible) Race to the Top competitive grant initiative and (the counterproductive) No Child waiver gambit — have helped further the very reforms (including the expansion of charters and overhauls of teacher evaluation systems) that have further weakened the NEA’s political standing.
Now with the call for Duncan’s resignation, the NEA has fully revealed the weakness of its influence. The NEA not only has to worry about efforts by governors such as Wisconsin Scott Walker to abolish collective bargaining and reform pensions that weakens its influence, it must also contend with an administration whose own policies have the same effect. It also has no way of waging any form of effective retribution against either the administration or its fellow Democrats. For one, Obama (along with Duncan) is now termed out of office, and thus, has no reason to do the NEA’s bidding. Just as importantly, given that Democrats have learned over the past four years that NEA support in political campaigns doesn’t translate into political victories, the party is now in the position of being the tail that wags the union’s dog. And with the public largely opposed to NEA’s agenda (even as they continue to give their support to teachers), the union, along with its traditionalist allies, are on their heels politically.
Meanwhile the NEA’s (and the AFT’s) decline in influence is exacerbated by gridlock at the congressional level. With both House Republicans and Senate Democrats refusing to give each other legislative victories (and the refusal of all Republicans in Congress to allow President Obama any wins on policymaking front), both unions can’t get anything done. Certainly the NEA’s goal of striking No Child’s accountability provisions from the books dovetails with that of House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, while it has strong ties to his colleague in the Senate , Tom Harkin. But since neither man can get any legislation passed beyond the floors of their respective chambers, the NEA can’t achieve much in the way of legislative progress. This gridlock is likely to remain the norm for some time, even with Republicans likely winning control of the Senate in November, because of their likely narrow majority, the peculiarities of Senate rules (which give individual members wide-ranging control over the progress of legislation), and the NEA’s lack of strong ties with Republicans at the federal level.
But the consequences of gridlock for the NEA lies not just with the inability to shape legislation. Although the Obama Administration is unable to pass legislation it favors, it can still advance its reform agenda through various other means. This includes issuing executive orders to implement its plans as well as through administrative rule-making that can lead to interpretations of laws on the books favorable to its goals. This makes the NEA’s move to call for Duncan’s resignation (along with last month’s move by AFT President Randi Weingarten to chastise Duncan for praising the Vergara v. California decision) especially counterproductive. Having been told by the NEA that nothing the administration does will find favor with it, Obama and Duncan could simply go radical and undertake anything pleases so long as it can be backed by a favorable interpretation of federal education law. As Obama has already shown in moves this year to initiate executive orders on climate change and immigration reform, this administration is willing to push matters to the legally possible limits when it so chooses.
This isn’t to say that the NEA no longer has any influence whatsoever. As seen in California, where it has successfully convinced Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators to roll back most reforms, the union can still win some defensive (and even offensive) victories. There’s also the fact that reformers are now divided among themselves over such matters as implementing Common Core reading and math standards as well as expanding accountability. But as seen with its call for Duncan’s resignation, the NEA (along with the AFT) is battling against reformers with a weak hand. And for the union, further loss of influence (along with loss of members and money) is likely in its future.
Certainly the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are happy that yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Harris v. Quinn didn’t altogether end their ability to force teachers to pay dues into their coffers regardless of their membership. But then, if they are getting good legal advice (and if lawyer-turned-AFT President Randi Weingarten was thinking like an attorney), it wouldn’t have been surprising that the High Court crafted a rather narrow decision restricting public-sector unions from forcing part-time employees from paying into their coffers.
After all, ending forced dues payments would mean overturning the Supreme Court’s 1977 decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which gave public sector unions that privilege, and judges, being conservative by nature, don’t eviscerate past precedents on their whims. That the home caregivers at the crux of Harris were part-time government employees and weren’t provided the same benefits as full-time civil servants also meant that Abood didn’t even apply in this case. Save for the AFT’s efforts to gain new members among part-time early education teachers at daycare centers, the Harris decision doesn’t immediately affect the two unions.
Yet the NEA and AFT have good reason to bemoan Harris. This is because while Justice Samuel Alito’s 43-page decision declares that Abood didn’t apply to the issues at the heart of Harris, he and the rest of the majority revealed their thinking about that past decision. And it signals that they will eventually end the ability of the NEA and AFT to force teachers and other district employees who aren’t union members to finance their operations.
As you already know, the Harris ruling comes just three weeks after a California Superior Court judge devastated the NEA and the AFT, along with their traditionalist allies with his ruling in Vergara v. California abolishing near-lifetime employment and teacher dismissal rules that are at the heart of teachers’ union influence. With reformers such as former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, and Parent Power activists such as Mona Davids of the New York City Parents Union looking to mount their own Vergara torts, the two unions face the likelihood of even greater declines in their influence. Especially given that they can no keep their promise to rank-and-file members and non-members forced to pay into their coffers to ensure that teaching will be insulated from systemic reform, the NEA and AFT are in a bad place.
Hard-core traditionalists within the AFT, in particular, are angry at Weingarten for her failed efforts to triangulate reformers by giving in on less-substantial reforms in order to keep other aspects of traditionalism in place. Meanwhile the NEA’s and AFT’s insistence on defending tenure, reverse-seniority layoff rules, and seniority-based privileges also angers younger, more reform-minded teachers whose career prospects and desire to elevate the profession are harmed the most.
So the Harris ruling would seem to be good news for the NEA and AFT. Right? Wrong. See, Justice Alito took time in his decision to address the Abood ruling. That ruling, handed down 37 years ago, was based on two Supreme Court decisions in two earlier cases, Machinists v. Street and Railway Employes v. Hanson, that involved private-sector workers in closed union shop workplaces being forced to pay dues to unions to which they were not members. In those two earlier rulings, the High Court ruled that unions could require nonmembers to pay them dues because they benefited from the union actions to improve pay and workplace conditions. At the same time, the workers didn’t have to pay a portion of those dues that would be devoted to explicitly political activities because that would infringe on their First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of association.
Concluding in their reasoning that public-sector workplaces such as Detroit’s traditional school district were no different than those in the private sector, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Abood that the AFT, along with NEA and other unions could also force workers to pay into union coffers regardless of their membership status so long as the portion of their dues otherwise geared for political activities was kicked back to them. For the AFT and NEA, Abood proved to be as much a boon to their finances and influence over education policy as near-lifetime employment rules and defined-benefit pensions. This is because teachers who would otherwise avoid NEA and AFT membership end up joining because they are forced to pay into their coffers anyway.
But as Alito pointed out in Harris, the Abood ruling was questionable. Why? For one, earlier justices failed to realize the inherent differences between private-sector and public-sector unionizing. While private-sector unions such as the United Auto Workers devote dollars to political campaigning and lobbying, it isn’t at the heart of their day-to-day activities. Most of their activities are focused on negotiating collective-bargaining agreements and addressing workplace conditions with companies and nonprofits, which are apolitical by nature.
This isn’t true for the NEA, or the AFT or any public sector union. Because they are bargaining collectively with the very governments they also lobby and negotiating with the politicians whose campaigns they finance or oppose, NEA and AFT activities are political by nature. As a result, teachers and other public-sector workers forced to pay into NEA and AFT coffers are subsidizing political activities they may not support with no legal recourse to get their money back. That is an infringement on their First Amendment rights. Because of Abood, teachers could have a hard time proving that NEA and AFT affiliates are actually separating political activities (and money used to finance it) from the rest of their activities.
But Alito’s arguments for striking down Abood go further than this. Unlike private-sector companies, who are not forcing workers to pay into unions because employees can stay or leave a job as they please, districts and state governments are essentially forcing teachers who aren’t NEA and AFT workers into paying into their coffers because of collective bargaining laws and other rules. As far as Alito is concerned, Abood ends up putting governments in the position of violating First Amendment rights of their workers as well. Simply put, no government should be in the position of aiding unions in their political activities at the expense of individual rights.
As I pointed out in today’s column in Rare, Alito’s statement in Harris proves to be a rather beneficial roadmap to right-to-work activists and public-sector employees tired of financing union operations. This is particularly true for younger teachers who may want to break away from NEA and AFT to either form professional associations of their own or join new-style groups such as Educators4Excellence. Chances are the Mackinac Institute will amend its brief in Chanski v. Michigan, which involves three Wolverine State teachers suing the NEA affiliate there for forcing them to pay dues by striking deals with the district to
What will be the financial impact of a future ruling striking down forced dues collections? It can be tremendous. Agency fee payers are, on the balance sheet, a small portion of overall numbers; NEA itself has a mere 88,378 agency fee payers equivalent to less than three percent of its overall membership. But keep in mind that many teachers may join NEA and AFT because they know they are going to end up paying dues to them anyway. If one merely looks at the membership numbers for the NEA’s Wisconsin affiliate, which declined by one-third over the past three years as a result of Gov. Scott Walker’s successful move to end forced dues payments, as well as the 63 percent decline in membership for the AFT’s Badger State affiliate (which is now merging with the NEA unit), the hit to both unions could be huge.
Based on a conservative estimate using NEA’s 2012-2013 numbers, the NEA could have lost at least a quarter of its 3.1 million members — and experienced a $92 million decline in revenue — if the High Court had struck down Abood. For the union, a $43 million surplus would have dissipated into a $49 million deficit. As for the AFT? They could also have also lost at least 25 percent of their members, taking a $36 million hit to its revenue line. For the AFT, which had a $14 million deficit last year and has had to borrow $205 million over the past two years just to finance operations, such a loss would be devastating.
Thanks to the Supreme Court, Randi and her soon-to-be new colleague as NEA President, Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, will soon be doing more than singing the blues.
SEIU vs. AFT, L.A. Unified Edition: Last month, Dropout Nation detailed how the Service Employees International Union was emerging as an influential player in education policymaking — and the impact of its growing clout on the influence of the National Education Association and, especially, the American Federation of Teachers in the school politics arena. The latest example of how SEIU’s interests are running up against those of the AFT can be seen in Southern California as both unions backed different candidates in a special election run-off for an Los Angeles Unified board seat.
Last week, SEIU’s Local 99 endorsed the bid of Alex Johnson, a former New York City Department of Education official who is now an aide to longtime L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, for the board seat vacated last December by the death of Marguerite LaMotte. The move by the reform-minded SEIU local ran counter to that of the AFT local, United Teachers Los Angeles, which is backing the bid of George McKenna, a former L.A. Unified bureaucrat (and occasional foe of Supt. John Deasy) best-known for being overseeing Miramonte Elementary during the tenure of the notorious former teacher Mark Berndt before he was indicted last year on 23 counts of criminal abuse of children at the school.
Certainly the move by Local 99 to back Johnson sets up a battle over advancing systemic reform. After all, Local 99 has long-backed Deasy’s efforts (and that of former L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa) to overhaul the district. Kathryn Torres, the sister of the Local 99′s president, and the head of the union’s political action committee, is planning to run against Bennett Kayser, the AFT’s errand man on the L.A. Unified board next year. Over the past three years, the SEIU unit has successfully backed Monica Garcia, the leading reformer on L.A. Unified’s board, and has unsuccessfully backed reformers such as Villaraigosa protege Antonio Sanchez, who lost to former AFT local honcho Monica Ratliff last year.
Given Johnson’s backing for expanding charter schools, as well as his ties with Ridley-Thomas (who has his own, albeit scant, reform bona-fides), Local 99′s endorsement is once again pleasing to Southern California reformers. Considering McKenna’s ties to the scandal-plagued Miramonte, whose entire teaching and administrative staff was replaced two years ago after the Berndt scandal (along with allegations of lewd conduct against another teacher at the school) came to light, Johnson could end up winning the seat to the delight of both SEIU and reformers.
But for SEIU, backing Johnson isn’t just about supporting Deasy’s systemic reform efforts.
As the primary bargaining agent for L.A. Unified’s janitors, cafeteria staffers, and other classified workers, Local 99 wants to put itself in the best position to ensure that the district provides its rank-and-file better compensation packages. Currently, the union is negotiating with L.A. Unified on a new contract, asking the district to increase wages by 15 percent over three years and offer a $15 minimum wage. Johnson, being the smart player that he is, enthusiastically backs the SEIU’s request.
Local 99′s demands come just as the AFT local is also pushing the district to increase teacher pay by 17 percent over a two-year period. Considering L.A. Unified’s woeful financial condition — including a 19 percent increase in its retired teacher and school employee healthcare costs between 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 (from $4 bilion to $4.8 billion), according to its most-recent annual report — the district is no position to grant double-digit pay raises to both teachers and classified workers. SEIU has already won a victory this month by getting L.A. Unified to hike wages for classified workers so they can make their full contributions to the California Public Employees Retirement System. For SEIU, a successful run by Johnson for the board seat furthers an already-strong negotiating position and puts the AFT, its biggest competitor for the district’s scarce resources, into a weaker one.
Meanwhile Local 99′s backing of Johnson also strengthens its ties to his boss, Ridley-Thomas, who is emerging as Southern California’s most-powerful black politician. This is a fact that the AFT local learned the hard way last December after LaMotte’s sudden death. Looking to replace LaMotte, who did its bidding on the L.A. Unified board, with another errand person, the union teamed up with Congresswoman Maxine Waters to push the board to appoint McKenna to the vacant seat. But Ridley-Thomas and his allies among Southern California’s school reform crowd, successfully forced the board to allow the seat to be filled by special election. By backing the wrong power player in Southern California black politics, the AFT weakened its own hand. That, by the way, magnified an even bigger loss earlier in the year when Deasy and his reform allies successfully stared down the union’s allies on the board.
A successful bid by Johnson helps SEIU, Ridley-Thomas, and reformers (especially Villaraigosa, who is still looking to eventually run for California statewide office). The big loser: The AFT local, for a loss means the loss of influence over the nation’s second-largest school district. But don’t think the AFT’s national headquarters isn’t paying attention to this race. A Johnson victory mean another prominent loss for the union in the nation’s largest state just after the Vergara ruling dealing an end to near-lifetime employment laws that sustained its influence.
Yet the AFT’s national office, along with the local, will have to tread carefully in opposing Johnson (and, ultimately, Ridley-Thomas). After all, the AFT’s relationship with blacks, troubled since the Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle in the 1960s, is even more so because of the strong support for charters and other reforms that ultimately help black children. Just because the AFT has bought the support of old-school civil rights leaders and groups such as Jesse Jackson and the NAACP doesn’t mean it can count on strong black support, especially when it means going up against a black candidate.
Whether or not Johnson beats McKenna in the run-off, two things are clear: That SEIU’s emergence as a force in L.A. Unified will come at the AFT local’s cost. And that this pattern will be repeated in every district throughout the nation.
And John Deasy Wins Again: Back in October, your editor predicted that one of the consequences of L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy’s successful push-back against traditionalists on the district’s board (and the AFT affiliate with whom they share common cause) is that he would get his way on some of initiatives he holds dear. This was particularly clear last week when the L.A. Unified Board approved a plan that is a key step to Deasy’s goal of embracing a weighted student funding approach to budgeting, handing more dollars to schools serving poor and minority children while allowing principals to manage their own budgets.
The approved plan technically directs Deasy to develop so-called “equity-based index” — a version of the poverty indexes used by states such as Indiana — to direct $800 million in so-called supplemental funding coming from California state coffers to district’s neediest children. The move was driven in part by the Golden State’s senseless move last year to ameliorate the effects of effectively ditch full state funding of districts and schools and go back to the old approach of local property-tax based funding. But in the process of dealing with that change in state funding, traditionalists on L.A. Unified’s board effectively gave in to Deasy on an issue on which they had steadfastly opposed him.
Last year, fresh off of a string of victories that included replacing reformer Nury Martinez with more-supportive former AFT local honcho Monica Ratliff, the AFT successfully convinced traditionalists on L.A, Unified’s board to mandate the district to hire more teachers, guidance counselors, and other staff across the board regardless of the needs of the schools and the children they serve. This ran counter to Deasy’s plans to restructure the district’s budgeting process toward a weighted student funding approach, which would effectively direct more money to schools serving poor and minority kids. Not only did Deasy declare that he would ignore the board’s demand, traditionalists were criticized by allies, including the Los Angeles Times‘ editorial page, for engaging in fiscal and educational fecklessness.
But traditionalists had their way until both moves by the state government and their own politically-hamfisted moves gave Deasy the advantage.
First came Gov. Jerry Brown’s successful move to eviscerate the state’s school funding approach and end the status it shared with Indiana as the only state to fully fund district and school operations. Your editor thinks that Brown’s move was wrongheaded for a lot of reasons (including the fact that districts are now empowered to oppose any efforts to expand charter schools because they can now claim that it takes dollars out of their coffers). But the one beneficial effect of the overhaul is that it has given reformers and children’s rights advocates the potential to push districts into embracing weighted student funding formulas that best-serve the poorest kids. This happened in L.A. Board as the Advancement Project and other groups teamed up with Deasy’s chief ally on the board, Monica Garcia, to push for the plan.
But the effort wouldn’t have likely succeeded if not for the failed effort last October by L.A. Unified’s board president, Richard Vladovic, and traditionalists backed by UTLA to force Deasy out of the superintendent’s office. Deasy would have likely resigned if not for his well-played leaks, which then rallied reformers in the City of Angels and the rest of the nation to force Vladovic and his crew to back down and sign Deasy to a new contract. Because traditionalists, especially the AFT local, lost so publicly and badly, Deasy now has a stronger hand to get what he wants. At the same time, Deasy can beat back those funding initiatives that traditionalists demand. This was made clear on Tuesday when Bennett Kayser, who is the AFT’s most-steadfast ally on the board, withdrew a request to spend $44 million more over the next three years on the district’s early childhood education programs.
Deasy still hasn’t shown to your editor’s satisfaction that he will be bolder in advancing reform than he has been throughout his tenure. But in moving closer to a weighted student budgeting formula, Deasy is doing the right thing by the most-vulnerable children in L.A. Unified’s care.