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.