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.