Earlier this month, Dropout Nation revealed that the American Federation of Teachers’ presentation on how its Connecticut affiliate went into “kill mode” to unsuccessfully stop the passage of Connecticut’s Parent Trigger law, made sure to exclude Parent Power groups from negotiations over the eventual bill, and used “karma” ( actually, electioneering) to make sure that the state representative who championed the law, Jason Bartlett, lost his re-election bid. For that, the union’s president, Randi Weingarten, had found herself issuing two non-apology apologies for the language in the presentation.
Then last week, Ben Smith of Politico reported that the AFT helped start Rheefirst, the Web site known for its vitriol against the former D.C. schools chancellor and longtime Weingarten foe. The union didn’t bother responding to Smith’s requests for response or confirmation, possibly hoping that this latest revelation would roll over.
But then, Rhee’s organization, StudentsFirst, issued a public statement today declaring that the Web site was “unbecoming” of “the civil discourse” the union declared last week it was trying to pursue. The AFT couldn’t possibly stay silent. So it issued a release essentially admitting that it was behind Rheefirst, proudly proclaiming that it was a “truth squad” against Rhee’s “agenda”.
Your editor has already made plain the hypocrisy of the AFT’s false arguments about the supposed incivility of school reformers (for their strong advocacy). I have also made clear in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast that school reformers don’t have to apologize for speaking plainly on behalf of overhauling American public education. But the bigger story isn’t about civility or transparency or even tough advocacy tactics. It is about how the union’s efforts to triangulate school reform has fallen apart.
Faced with a decade-long decline in influence and the reality that its rank-and-file workers work in the big cities that are the centers for pioneering school reform efforts, the AFT has played upon its idiosyncratic history as militant unionizers and backers of such innovations as charter schools to pursue a third way of sorts, embracing some reforms while otherwise preserving the status quo. Building off Weingarten’s experience losing battles with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg during her tenure as head of the AFT’s Big Apple affiliates, the AFT has launched an initiative to help its locals experiment with their versions of small-scale reform, nudged locals to accept contracts that weaken the use of seniority in teacher layoffs and allow for some form of performance-based pay, and even launch its own charter schools. And though most of the AFT’s moves were driven more by its political losses than any desire to embrace systemic reform, the union had successfully positioned itself as the more reform-minded of the two major teachers’ unions.
But in the last three months, the AFT’s strategy has fallen apart. One reason why? The union’s Baby Boomer members, now a minority of its rank-and-file, but still in control of union locals, have been unwilling to embrace even the modest reforms Weingarten has pushed. As seen in cities such as Chicago and D.C., moderates have lost to hard-liners such as Karen Lewis and Nathan Saunders, who have pushed harder to keep the status quo in place. As seen with Lewis’ rejection of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to offer a two percent wage increase in exchange for teachers working longer school days (and ending the district’s unenviable distinction of having the shortest instructional day among the nation’s largest school districts), it’s all about keeping the deals in place and not about any moderation.
But the strategy really began falling apart in June, when the AFT’s New York City local teamed up with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Big Apple unit to sue Mayor Bloomberg over his plan to shut down 20 of the city’s failure mills and allow 22 charter schools to share space with the city’s traditional schools. The public relations nightmares that followed — including the declaration by NAACP honcho Hazel Dukes to a charter school parent that she and her fellow families were “doing the business of slave masters” — along with the accompanying loss in court, made the AFT’s positioning seem like mere posturing. And now, this month’s revelations this month have further weakened the legitimacy of the AFT’s third way.
It will be interesting to see how the AFT responds to these public relations and political blunders. Weingarten may need to hold a retreat with her P.R. counselors and come up with something that will be less-prone to exposure. Meanwhile, the more-quiet Dennis Van Roekel and his folks over at the National Education Association can smile at their counterpart’s misfortunes and pursue their more-hardline strategies with a little more satisfaction.