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February 27, 2015 standard

When your editor took time yesterday to discuss how infighting among congressional Republicans would make any reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act unlikely, he didn’t fully expect that the sparring would doom the prospects of John Kline getting his own plan passed out of the House today. Yet House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman, who has long posed himself as a stalwart adherent of movement conservatism (even as he champions increased subsidies for special education ghettos and evisceration of accountability for federal spending), is battling with true-believers within his own caucus over whether his plan for reauthorizing the law was adherent enough to their interpretation of ideology.

Earlier today, House Republican leadership recessed debate on Kline’s No Child plan, the Student Success Act, without so much as a vote on the full bill after conservative true-believers within the caucus threatened to vote against it. The bill has since been withdrawn from further consideration.

Spurred in part by their ire toward Speaker John Boehner (against whom they spurred a revolt last month), a manifesto issued last week by a group of even-less sensible erstwhile school reformers such as Hoover Institution’s Williamson Evers and Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation, and the not-so-subtle threats of being primaried by Heritage’s political action wing and the Club for Growth, the true-believers claim Kline’s plan doesn’t do enough to “[get] Washington out of the business of running America’s schools” as his committee’s mouthpieces proclaim.

With at least 31 House Republicans likely to vote against House Resolution 5, Kline is scrambling to get at least some of those members back on board to pass it. In fact, he even canceled a trip to a school in Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood to whip up support. He needs all the help he can get. House Democrats have already made clear that they will only support a proposed No Child reauthorization that they cobbled together over the past two days. President Obama’s announcement that he will veto H.R. 5 if it somehow managed to gain Senate approval (which was going to be unlikely anyway), along with the desire among congressional Democrats to deny Republicans any legislative victory (as well as stop them from rolling back Obama’s legacy on education policy) has all but assured that no Democrat will come to Kline’s side.

Kline also can’t count on either Boehner or Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. They are far too busy battling with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over a version of a funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security that leaves out a poison pill kiboshing the Obama Administration’s executive order temporarily staying deportation for five million undocumented emigres. Given that Boehner and McCarthy will likely have to pass that legislation over the ire of Nativists and conservative true-believers, they are unlikely to do more on Kline’s behalf other than some tepid vote-whipping. [Update (5:25 p.m.): Boehner and McCarthy couldn’t even gain passage of a stopgap measure to finance Homeland Security operations for a three-month period. Fifty two of 243 House Republicans voted against the bill.]

Meanwhile Kline can’t really do much to appease conservative true-believers without making his No Child reauthorization plan even less likely to win passage.

Centrist Democrat school reformers along with the more-sensible of movement conservative counterparts, governors from both parties, and civil rights-oriented players are opposed to proposals from true-believers to abolish No Child’s testing provision, which rightfully requires states to administer reading, math, and science exams in exchange for federal education subsidies. Such a move would also lead moderate Republicans more-supportive of reform (and mindful of support from the chambers of commerce who back overhauling public education) to abandon their support.

Given that the idea comes from more-rabid school choice activists such as Evers and Burke (along with University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene) who want to shield voucher programs from any accountability, and would get the backing of traditionalists (who oppose testing altogether), eviscerating the testing mandate exposes Kline and House Republicans to charges (from other conservatives) of hypocrisy and being in bed with unions.

As it is, Kline can now be accused of being both an apostate from conservatism and being a stooge for teachers’ unions after the House voted last night to approve an amendment from Rep. Bob Goodlatte backed by Club for Growth and NEA to allow districts to use unreliable local assessments (including those drawn up by teachers) in place of state standardized testing regimes. The amendment not only makes a mockery of accountability by using tests that wouldn’t pass anyone’s smell test, it even violates both state constitutions (which put states in charge of public education and therefore, in charge of all testing) and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Hunter v. Pittsburgh (which affirms the positions of districts and municipalities as arms of state governments).

Kline also can’t allow H.R. 5 to be amended to include a plan to voucherize Title 1 dollars; one version of the idea was withdrawn during markup of the bill and kept off the list of amendments to be considered by the full body after both Democrats and moderate Republicans strenuously opposed it. Your editor has no particular problem with such a plan so long as it also includes requiring states to allow the rest of school funding to follow children to any schools their families choose. Otherwise the entire exercise won’t work for children. But Kline couldn’t incorporate such a provision without stoking claims of federal overreach from other movement conservatives; that the federal government couldn’t mandate such a move even if either Kline or the Obama Administration wanted to also makes the entire effort an exercise in futility.

Given the state of play — including Boehner’s need to stave off further ire from conservative true-believers over the eventual passage of McConnell’s plan for funding Homeland Security — Kline won’t likely get H.R. 5 passed out of the House. For the Minnesota Republican, who is in his last term chairing Education and the Workforce, it could mean his five-year-long effort to eviscerate No Child and its powerful accountability provisions will likely come to an ignominious end if he can’t find enough votes to win passage. [Boehner, who cowrote No Child during his tenure chairing the committee Kline now runs, is probably quietly happy about it.]

The defeat of H.R. 5 would also be an even more-humiliating political loss than the one he faced two years ago when 70 of his fellow Republicans, at the behest of Indian tribes in their districts and Native education groups, passed an amendment to retain Title VII as its own funding stream. It also means Kline cedes control of the process of reauthorizing No Child, such as it is, to his colleague (and rival) in the Senate, Lamar Alexander, whose own plan for eviscerating the law’s accountability provisions is no better. But given that Kline can’t even get his own plan passed, along with the even greater obstacles Alexander faces from Senate Democrats (who can block his efforts at will), the chances of any No Child reauthorization coming from Capitol Hill are slim and none.

Your editor is unsurprised by this moment of movement conservative and Republican Party fratricide. There has been an endless cycle of purity-testing that rivals the battles within both the conservative movement and the Grand Old Party that were the norm between the Second World War and Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980. The recriminations over the excesses, perceived and otherwise, of George W. Bush’s tenure as president (as well as the defeat of Republican nominee John McCain by Obama seven years ago) even extend to education policy as movement conservatives otherwise unconcerned with education policy are accusing conservative reform outfits such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute of being apostates. In short, no different than the battles within Democrat circles over reform during the previous decade.

Kline, who whipped up the frenzy of movement conservatives against No Child during his tenure as chairman of Education and the Workforce (and before that as ranking Republican) has now found himself on the business end of it. Conservative reform outfits such as Fordham and players such as Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, who supported Kline’s plan to eviscerate accountability (and have essentially accused with the rest of the school reform movement of race-baiting), also find themselves isolated. They now face new charges of being insufficiently conservative from ideological fellow-travelers who want even further rollbacks on reform. Turnabout is, well, turnabout.

Certainly centrist Democrat reformers and others can enjoy this episode of Republican and movement conservative seppuku if they so choose. But they better get to work advancing systemic reform at the state level. Or else this temporary victory will lead to a greater loss for our children.

February 26, 2015 standard

When it comes to efforts to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, hope always triumphs over reality. Even when the kabuki of markups and posturing resemble those of past years, it is easier for some to think that actual legislation will be passed and signed. This time around, the fervent faith can be found among conservative Beltway reformers, who have been irrationally exuberant about the chances of congressional Republicans passing a new version of No Child that they favor since winning control of the Senate and gaining more seats in the House last year.

But the news today that President Barack Obama has pledged to veto any version of the House Republican rewrite of No Child, the Student Success Act, should give conservative reformers pause. So should the sparring between congressional leaders in the House and Senate over whether to excise part of the proposed bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security that essentially kiboshes Obama’s executive order temporarily staying deportation for five million undocumented emigres, many of whom have children who are American citizens by birth. Both situations serve as reminders to reformers of all stripes that they need to focus more time on the nation’s statehouses (where systemic reform efforts are on the agenda) than all the pantomime on Capitol Hill.

Your editor laid out what was likely to happen on the federal education policy front back in November, just after Obama issued his executive order on immigration. Back then, I noted that the president had few reasons to sign any version of No Child coming from congressional Republicans, especially since the latter seeks a total defeat of the Obama Administration’s political agenda. Given that the administration can go ahead and issue extensions of waivers granted as part of its No Child waiver gambit, and that the president no longer has to worry about defending a Democratic majority in Congress, Obama will do whatever is legally and constitutionally possible to defend his legacy on one of his few policy successes. And because congressional Republicans don’t have veto-proof majorities (and cannot count on any support from Democrats), the president will get what he wants.

At the same time, I noted that congressional Republicans would struggle to pass any legislation, much less a reauthorized version of No Child, because of divides between Senate and House Republicans (each of whom are driven by different political pressures),  within their respective caucuses, and between congressional leaders and Republican governors who benefit from the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit. Stalemate was more-likely to be the norm than the exception, save for nearly all spending bills; after all, the Members have to bring pork home to their districts as well as preserve iron triangle relationships from which they can profit once they leave office.

The months since have proven both points. Obama’s veto this week of a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone Pipeline, a project that was of little significance either economically or ecologically (but a political football for both political parties), made clear that he wasn’t simply going to do the bidding of congressional Republicans. The administration’s decision to file a request for a Texas U.S. District Court judge to overrule his decision halting implementation of his immigration executive order — which will lead to a swift appeal once he rules against it — also shows that Obama is sticking to his agenda.

Meanwhile congressional Republicans are struggling to get their own side together. Last month’s revolt by movement conservative true-believers in the caucus against re-electing Speaker John Boehner to another term atop the House revealed how difficult it would be for Republican leadership on the body to get anything passed. That Boehner was then forced to pull back an anti-abortion bill, the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, after moderates in the caucus balked at a provision supporting the ban of the operations after a child has been in the womb for 20 weeks, also shows how difficult it will be for the party to pass all but the least-controversial legislation.

These events haven’t convinced conservative reformers and others of the unlikelihood of a No Child reauthorization. In fact, both former Fordham Institute President Checker Finn and Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute have pieces out lionizing the Student Success Act as legislation that reaffirms the role of states in setting education policy. The fact that both Finn and Hess conveniently ignore that this was actually done by No Child, which gives states wide leeway in meeting basic accountability for student achievement in exchange for federal dollars they agree to receive, shows that both men are engaging in pure intellectual sophistry. Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners, slightly conceding that the low odds of reauthorization, is still offering some convoluted scenario for a compromise on No Child (led by state governments) that isn’t likely to ever happen.

But yesterday’s news about Obama’s veto, along with the stalemate over the Homeland Security funding bill, should force conservative reformers and others to accept reality.

Obama’s announcement of the veto should have been expected by anyone with a modest level of political discernment. After all, the Student Success Act is just another warmed-over version of the No Child evisceration House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline has tried to make law since taking over the panel four years ago. Other than a move to ban restricting the Obama Administration its successors from supporting implementation of state-initiated reforms such as Common Core reading and math standards (a practice that dates back to the Reagan Administration’s publication of A Nation at Risk), the Student Success Act (or H.R. 5, for short) does little more than allow states to spend federal dollars as freely as they did in the years before the passage of No Child 13 years ago.

Since the law also aimed to abolish competitive grant programs such as Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation initiatives that have been the cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s reform efforts, there was no way that the president would even think of signing it. It isn’t just about the administration’s legacy. As Dropout Nation has argued in the past, Race to the Top alone deserves credit for encouraging states to undertake much-needed reforms that are already helping children; this includes expanding the number of charter schools by 24 percent between 2009-2010 and 2013-2014 as well as the passage of Parent Trigger laws in seven states and the launch of voucher and tax credit programs in more than 15 states. [Martin West of Harvard University makes a similar case for I3.] Put simply, Kline’s plan would be a setback for reform.

Senate and House Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are dealing with discord between (and within) their respective caucuses.

Conservative reformers hoping that Obama’s veto is just a prelude to the signing of a supposedly more moderate version from Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander are ignoring a few key facts.

For one, Alexander’s plan isn’t much different from Kline’s version, and not even much different from the proposals the former U.S. Secretary of Education (and erstwhile reformer) has been floating around since his days as Ranking Member. This includes essentially ditching the reductions in accountability to lowest-performing five percent of schools (along with another 10 percent of schools with wide achievement gaps) required under the Obama Administration’s senseless No Child waiver gambit. No way the Obama Administration can sign onto such a reauthorization without angering civil rights activists and centrist Democrat school reformers.

There’s also the fact that any plan coming out of Congress will try to reduce executive authority on the education policy front. No president, much less Obama (whose for whom use executive orders and waivers has been a hallmark of his tenure), will sign onto that. [Such political considerations is an underlying reason why governors attending this week’s winter meeting of the National Governors Association, a group that includes such presidential aspirants as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and John Kasich of Ohio, expressed concern about Kline’s and Alexander’s plans.]

All things considered — including the administration’s No Child waiver extensions (which will stretch beyond Obama’s time in the White House) — there’s no reason for Obama to negotiate anything with anyone. In fact, all he has to do is simply veto whatever No Child reauthorization comes to his desk. That’s if one comes at all. With the way congressional Republicans are sparring with each other over other legislation, it will be a miracle if any bill makes it off the Hill at all.

The past two weeks have seen Boehner and his fellow House Republicans spar with their peers in the Senate over the Homeland Security funding plan, which contains a poison pill restricting the administration from implementing its immigration order. House Republican leadership know that they can’t pass a Homeland Security bill without appealing to both Nativists in the party base as well as movement conservatives who want to hamstring Obama any way possible. Given that Boehner can no longer punish wayward members and cannot count on support from Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and her caucus, the speaker has no choice but to go along with his true-believers.

But Senate Republican leadership know they can’t pass such legislation. After all, they lack the 60 votes necessary to block a Senate Democrat filibuster, and worse, known that many of their own members support the kind of comprehensive immigration reform that the Obama Administration’s plan represents. [That Obama, being a lame duck president with nothing to lose, will veto it if the poison pill remains in place is also a factor.] This reality is why McConnell is offering up a version of the bill that only addresses funding and leaves the president’s executive order in place. This angers House Republicans such as Steve King, the leader of the anti-immigration faction in that caucus, who accused McConnell of just giving up.

Chances are that a Homeland Security funding bill will pass. After all, like defense, the agency is an iron triangle with businesses and other lobbies for whom congressional leaders will eventually work upon leaving office. But it is also possible that the federal government will not fund the salaries of those handling border patrols, airport check points, anti-terrorism operations, drug trafficking crackdowns, and guarding Obama. [All but 31,295 of them would still be working, albeit without pay.]

Meanwhile the intramural squabbling among Republicans has already spread from the Homeland Security bill to No Child reauthorization. Movement conservative true-believers, at the behest of movement conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and even less-sensible conservative reformers such as Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas, are complaining that Kline’s plan isn’t sufficiently conservative in their mind. They want the reauthorzation to allow states to opt out of annual testing (and betray the conservative principle that state must be accountable for federal dollars they receive) as well as voucherize Title 1 dollars (without requiring states to allow the rest of state funding to follow kids into schools they choose).

Other Republicans with American Indian tribes in their districts, will likely join Kline’s fellow Minnesotan in the House, Rick Nolan, to pass an amendment aimed at removing H.R. 5’s restriction on increasing funding for Native education programs. [Those Republicans and Democrats, by the way, teamed up two years ago to amend the earlier version of the Student Success Act and reverse Kline’s effort to eliminate Title VII funding.] Given the abysmal physical and academic conditions of schools run by U.S. Bureau of Indian Education, any reduction in Native education funding will be viewed as a moral violation as well as an abrogation of the federal government’s explicit constitutional responsibility to provide high-quality education to Native kids. Add in the other divides among congressional Republicans over the direction of federal education policy, and one can expect little to come to pass.

So those reformers, conservative and otherwise, expecting more from the Beltway other than the usual sound and fury signifying nothing will be disappointed. They shouldn’t be. History repeats and when it doesn’t, often rhymes. The better thing to do is to ignore the Beltway kabuki and get to work in statehouses while time still allows. After all, most state legislative sessions wrap up by the end of May.

February 23, 2015 standard

Chances are that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are likely happy that they aren’t facing the kind of scrutiny greeted upon likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton or her fellow Democrats. Which given the Big Two’s oft-strained ties of mutual convenience to the Democratic National Committee, should be considered a public relations miracle.

Over the past few weeks, media outlets such as the Washington Post along with groups such as Center for Public Integrity have raised questions about the fundraising practices of the foundation founded by former U.S. Secretary of State and her husband, the former President of the United States. This includes questions about whether the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation has inadvertently helped foreign donors such as Canadian financier Frank Giustra (with help from banking giant HSBC) circumvent the tax laws of their respective countries, as well as whether the companies and foreign governments are circumventing campaign finance laws (and looking to win help from Hillary if she wins the White House) by donating to Clinton’s nonprofit machine.

Concerns about the appearances of impropriety (which are always worse than reality) have become so great that the New York Times demanded the Clinton Foundation to reinstate a ban on foreign donations that was in place during Hillary’s tenure as head of the nation’s chief vehicle for foreign policy. [The Clinton Foundation says it is more-transparent about its fundraising activities than other nonprofits.]

But a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission last week against the Democratic National Committee as well as Clinton’s unsuccessful run for president seven years ago and that of President Barack Obama raises the possibility that the campaign finance and political spending practices of the Big Two teachers’ unions may come under real scrutiny from federal officials, conservative-leaning advocates, and the school reform movement itself.

The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust alleges in its 109-page complaint that the DNC, Democratic political campaigns, and progressive outfits such as the notoriously-shadowy Democracy Alliance, through the efforts of former Clinton Administration honcho Harold Ickes’ Catalist LLC and NGP Van (which manages the DNC’s databases), are sharing voter lists, fundraising information, and other data for their congressional and presidential election campaigning. By selling such data at below-market rates to political campaigns and to advocates alike — as well as through the presence of prominent Democratic Party in financing Catalist and Democracy Alliance — Democrats are essentially coordinating political and advocacy activities.

Such coordination between 501(c)3 nonprofits (which are supposed to be focused on pure advocacy), Super-PACs, 501(c)4 groups, and political campaigns (the latter three engaged in explicit political campaigning) is a violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, which is supposed to be a firewall against such activities. There’s also the possibility that such coordination may also violate federal tax laws, especially since 501(c)3s are restricted from anything other than advocacy. [The fact that much of political advocacy ends up resembling lobbying in practice is another matter entirely.]

For now, neither NEA nor AFT have been named by FACT in its complaint. But the two unions have plenty to sweat about. After all, as Dropout Nation reported in November, the Big Two have spent the past few years building close ties to Democracy Alliance, which has worked aggressively to dodge the firewalls between advocacy and political campaigning.

NEA Executive Director John Stocks, a longtime player within Democracy Alliance, took over as its chairman last year, and has stepped up the union’s support of the group’s network of progressive advocacy groups. NEA has poured $794,728 into Democracy Alliance and its direct affiliates between 2009-2010 and 2013-2014, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of the union’s filings with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Meanwhile AFT has become tied to Democracy Alliance. Last year, the union’s president, Randi Weingarten, and her top assistant, former Service Employees International Union honcho Michelle Ringuette, became Democracy Alliance members. AFT also poured $90,000 to the group as well as its Texas Future Project. Given the AFT’s longstanding efforts to co-opt progressive groups, AFT will likely give even more money to Democracy Alliance this fiscal year.

But for NEA, the risk of scrutiny doesn’t just lie with the Big Two’s ties to Democracy Alliance. NEA has spent $2.1 million with Catalist between 2009-2010 and 2013-2014; it also spent $614,746 with NGP Van between 2010-2011 and 2013-2014. Based on NEA’s relationship with Catalist and NGP Van, along with the union’s ties to Democracy Alliance, the union could end up being ensnared in a future FEC complaint.

AFT has less exposure because much of the focus of its political spending is targeted toward state and local campaigns. But given that the union is also devoting its member dollars to players within the wider Democracy Alliance network — including an affiliate of the Nation and progressive think tank Demos — questions can be raised about whether it is coordinating advocacy and explicitly political campaigning.

The bigger questions for AFT lie in its giving to the Clinton’s collection of charities. As Dropout Nation reported in October, AFT gave $250,000 to the Clinton Foundation and $200,000 to the Clinton Global Initiative (whose operations are managed by the Clinton Foundation, according to its filings with the Internal Revenue Service). One can easily surmise that AFT is using its contributions to purchase Hillary Clinton’s support for its agenda — and to fight off the dominance of reformers in Democratic Party politics. Considering the scrutiny on the Clinton’s charities, you can expect Hillary’s team to play down any ties between the union and her apparatus, and even go further in embracing her husband’s legacy in advancing systemic reform. Which could mean that AFT has spent money for nothing.

But let’s keep it real: NEA and AFT often blur the lines between advocacy and explicit politicking. As Dropout Nation Contributor Dmitri Mehlhorn and others have noted, the Big Two have long used so-called member communications and other union activities to command rank-and-file members to engage in advocacy. There’s also the contributions made by the two unions to supposedly like-minded groups, including progressive outfits such as Center for Popular Democracy’s Action Fund, civil rights groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens, and education players such as the Schott Foundation for Public Education and its Opportunity to Learn Action Fund. As seen late last year, when LULAC and Schott signed up onto NEA’s and AFT’s effort to weaken the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability and testing provisions, the two unions count on these outfits to carry its water inside city halls, statehouses, and on Capitol Hill.

Reformers, along with conservative groups (including right-to-work outfits), can easily point to how NEA and AFT blur the lines between advocacy and politicking. Especially for reformers, the political nature of Big Two spending allows them to point to this reality: That classroom teachers, most of whom are forced by state laws and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education to pay into NEA and AFT in the form of dues and so-called agency fees (which are essentially dues), are subsidizing political activities with which they may not support in violation of their First Amendment right to free speech. This is a point U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Allito made in his decision last year in the case of Harris v. Quinn; it will likely come up again this year if the high court takes up Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, in which a group of Golden State teachers are seeking to end the ability of NEA and AFT affiliates to forcibly collect dues from their paychecks.

Given the FACT complaint, expect reformers, movement conservative groups, and even good government types to submit NEA and AFT spending to further scrutiny. This year may turn out to be even worse for the Big Two teachers’ unions than the last.

February 5, 2015 standard

There are a few reasons why affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers continue to cling on to declining influence over education policymaking. One lies with state laws and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which allow for the unions to forcibly collect dues and so-called agency fees from teachers regardless of their desire for membership — and then deploy them for explicit and implicit political activities. Then there’s also state laws forcing districts to bargain with NEA and AFT locals; the collective bargaining laws, along with the campaign dollars the two unions deploy, essentially give union bosses a level of influence over districts that supersedes that of the voting public.

Then there is the ability of NEA and AFT locals to get activists among the rank-and-file (along with even principals, especially those in unions) to advocate on their behalf before families and children from within their classrooms. This is especially effective because there are still many parents who trust what their teachers tell them, and thus, can easily end up working on behalf of NEA and AFT locals unless they understand the politics at play. Which is what teachers’ union bosses count on. While districts occasionally have rules in place to restrict such politicking, the reality is that teachers’ union bosses (including so-called chapter leaders working part-time in schools while serving as classroom teachers) can effectively work around those rules to engage in the kind of advocacy that would get district bureaucrats in hot water.

So no one should be surprised that the AFT’s Big Apple local, the United Federation of Teachers, has allegedly been caught engaging in such activity as part of its effort against moves by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his school reform allies to expand school choice and transform the Empire State’s public education systems.

As detailed today by New York City Parents Union President Mona Davids in an e-mail to Big Apple Chancellor Carmen Fariña, Eugenia Montalvo, the principal of one school, P.S. 106 in the Bronx section of the city, took time yesterday during her morning announcements to read a UFT flier asking children and families to join teachers and members of the American Federation of State County and  Municipal Employees’ District 37 in wearing red this coming Friday and every Friday thereafter in protest of Cuomo’s reform efforts. This, by the way, would clash with the elementary school’s uniform colors of blue and white.

Lobbying by NEA and AFT bosses in schools such as P.S. 106 in New York City’s Bronx borough is often a regular occurrence.

Given that Davids and other parents (along with Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice) are tangling with the AFT local in court over ending New York State’s near-lifetime employment and teacher dismissal laws, this politicking didn’t exactly go over well with her. That such a move also violates the Big Apple’s rules on politicking in school buildings also made Montalvo’s move a problem. When Davids asked Montalvo why she read the flyer, the principal said she did it at the request of the UFT’s chapter leader on campus. Today, the chapter leader, Penny Block, expressed shock and dismay that Davids had the temerity to complain about this advocacy.

Certainly the politicking is bad enough given that UFT activists aren’t exactly giving all sides of the story. But it is even worse in the case of P.S. 106, because it isn’t exactly a high-quality school. Just 20 percent of students met New York State’s standards in reading on the most-recent round of exams; this is ten percentage points than the average for the Big Apple as a whole. Politicking against reform is the last thing either Montalvo or Block should be doing.

Davids has since demanded Fariña to issue a warning to principals and teachers reminding them to not advocate politically in classrooms. Not that such a move will likely work. For one, Fariña and her boss, Mayor Bill de Blasio, have long ago proven that they will do UFT’s bidding whenever possible. Especially since both the mayor and the union have joined common cause in opposing any kind of systemic reform that benefits the children the district serves.

Secondly, even if Fariña issues the order, UFT’s mandarins can find other ways of politicking within classrooms. [Update on February 6: As Carl Campanile of the New York Post reports today, UFT is also lobbying parents on the district’s education councils to join their effort.] Of course, this is fine with the union so long as rank-and-file members are doing its bidding. Not so much when they go astray, as some teachers did last September when they wore NYPD t-shirts in solidarity with officers and their union, the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association against the UFT’s partnership with Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network against police brutality.

What reformers and families can do is what Davids has done: Publicize these acts of politicking — and remind parents that they must be skeptical of anything told to them regarding education policy by anyone within districts and schools. The movement must also work harder on the ground in communities, especially with the churches, community organizations, Parent Power groups, and impromptu leaders that serve families, to neutralize the advantage exploited by UFT and other locals.

Featured photo: Don’t expect New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to do anything about politicking in classrooms by UFT President Michael Mulgrew’s mandarins. Photo courtesy of the Daily News.

February 3, 2015 standard

The National Education Association will do anything — and spend as much as possible — to defend the failed policies and practices within American public education that help fill its coffers to the tune of $385 million a year (as well as keeps its affiliates in the money). This includes hiring public relations strategists and political consultants to help it change the conversation about the educational inequality perpetuated by Zip Code Education policies such as zoned schooling (as well as the continuing use of property tax dollars to fund traditional districts and restrict school choice), as well as by near-lifetime employment laws and teacher dismissal laws that deny high-quality teaching to our most-vulnerable children. These firms, including campaign strategy powerhouse Donna Brazile’s eponymous firm and polling outfit GBA Strategies, collected some of the $132 million in forced teacher due payments NEA spent in 2013-2014.

Which is why your editor isn’t surprised that NEA, with the help of pollster Celinda Lake’s eponymous firm and longtime progressive communications adviser Anat Shenker-Osorio, has issued some talking points to its leaders and most-rabid rank-and-file members advising them to avoid using words such educational inequality in their efforts against systemic reform. [Conor P. Williams of New America Foundation has his own thoughts.] After all, by even mentioning the word inequality — a word that has become associated with the school reform movement and its mission of building brighter futures for kids — NEA players (along with their colleagues at the American Federation of Teachers) essentially remind families and others that the nation’s largest teachers’ union is one of the key players in continuing practices and systems that have denied high-quality education and choice to all children.

But in the process of attempting to engage in double-speak, NEA may end up hurting its own cause — and advance the very systemic reforms it opposes.

If NEA rank-and-filers members use the union’s preferred phrase of “Living in the right zip code” in place of inequality, as the union and its advisers suggest, they will help reformers point to the absurdity of the traditional district model and Zip Code Education policies that restrict families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, from accessing high-quality schools no matter where they live. NEA leaders will then have to explain why their affiliates, along with that of AFT,  fight vigilantly throughout the nation against the expansion of public charter schools and other forms of choice that have proven to improve graduation rates for black and Latino children. They will also be on the defensive as reformers point out how NEA affiliates essentially defend school residency laws that have put parents such as Kelley Williams-Bolar into prison for the laughable offense of “stealing education” that their children deserve. And the union itself will have to explain how its units, with those of AFT, work together with traditional districts to oppose any overall of school finance systems that will lead to dollars following children out of failure mills and warehouses of mediocrity to any high-quality school, public, private or charter, that provides them with teaching and curricula they need. None of this will improve NEA’s low public standing or that of AFT.

By telling activists to use terms such as “Education Excellence” instead of school reform, NEA is helping them highlight the union’s role in perpetuating the failures of American public education. After all, such a discussion will then point to the fact that one out of every three fourth-graders — including one-in-two who are black and Latino — are functionally illiterate thanks in part to the unwillingness of NEA affiliates and other traditionalists to meaningfully overhaul how we recruit, train, compensate, and manage the performance of teachers working in our classrooms. How can an NEA leader talk about excellence and defend teacher dismissal processes that allow New York City teacher Ann Legra to stay in the classroom despite six years of evidence showing her unsatisfactory performance? How can a traditionalist defend policies that protect criminally-abusive teachers such as now-former L.A. Unified instructor Mark Berndt? NEA may want to stay away from any talk about excellence.

Then there is the instruction from NEA that its activists should substitute talk about accountability and “research-driven practices” with chatter about “Getting serious about what works”. Such conversations will lead to a few questions. Ones such as why is NEA’s Louisiana affiliate suing the Bayou State for funding charters that have helped spur improvements in achievement of New Orleans kids? Or why the union, along with the AFT, is continuing its jihad against Teach For America, which has proven to be better in training aspiring teachers than traditional ed schools the union supports? At the same time, NEA activists will have to explain why they and their union have done little to put an end to practices that don’t work. This includes the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of traditional school discipline, which have been proven to actually put more kids on the path to dropping out into poverty and prison.

Put simply, NEA is getting shoddy word-smithing and dime-store propaganda for the $170,080 in member dollars it paid to Lake’s firm. This isn’t shocking. Because NEA only tested these messages out with 424 of its members instead of with the wider public, it never bothered to step outside of its own group-think. After all, if it dared to even talk to actual families and communities, the union would have to change its tune.

Meanwhile NEA is harming its political and financial position by not discussing some important matters: The union’s unwillingness to embrace Parent Trigger laws and other Parent Power measures that allow families in Adelanto, Calif., and Anaheim to take over and overhaul failing schools within their own communities. Its failure to acknowledge that the union’s old-school industrial union model fails to serve the needs of younger teachers (who make up the majority of the union’s rank-and-file) seeking the kind of professionalism that will both elevate teaching and ultimately help the children they serve. The union’s silence about evidence from the last election cycle that its defense of policies and practices that fill its pockets (for which it spent $41 million) is being rejected by increasing numbers of voters and politicians. And NEA’s reticence about how it belies its claims of being a bastion of modern progressive thinking with every act in defense of its revenue.

By expending so much effort on political obscurantism, NEA is essentially exposed its own intellectual and moral bankruptcy as well as that of its traditionalist allies. More importantly, by trying to steer the conversation away from the economic and social inequality it helps perpetuate, the union also betrays its primary concern for keeping its coffers filled at the expense of the children, families, and communities for which it proclaims concern. This includes the children from Latino and black households that look like NEA President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia and number two leader Becky Pringle.

This will result in NEA losing even more influence over education policy in the coming years — and even more lost cash from teachers, especially when the U.S. Supreme Court finally rules that it and other public-sector unions can no longer take cash from their paychecks regardless of their desire for membership.

All in all, the NEA’s chatter points will do more for reformers, children, families, and communities than it will for itself.