Some (Unsolicited) Advice to NEA and AFT Leaders

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Last week Chris Stewart, native of New Orleans and graduate of the its public school system (“My NOLA education sucked. Badly.) blogged about how “a dedicated syndicate of privileged individuals are set on disproving rather than lauding the progress of students, teachers, and schools.” He describes a bus tour that was part of anti-reform conference sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association:

[T]he purpose was to form an attack on a success story that threatens their “poverty prevents learning” narrative. When the black poor are learning outside of the traditional system, it isn’t good for business. There will be a business response. Like a bus tour to highlight everything bad.

Stewart pierces the heart of a major misstep by teacher union leaders: misrepresenting beneficial changes in non-traditional school systems in order to protect the old world order, whether that’s fighting  parents’ rights to choose alternative public schools or spinning distressingly low academic standards, archaic adult-centric tenure laws, and data-free teacher evaluations. In doing so, unions undermine their own credibility and, increasingly, position themselves further and further apart from the American zeitgeist.

Example: a poll came out last week from Education Next soliciting opinions from the public about hot-button education issues like the higher academic standards. While the term “Common Core” garners disdain (google “Common Core” + “toxic” and you get 288,000 results), everyone wants to elevate standards for kids and more than half of voters think states should have common standards. The poll “reveals little public sympathy for the opt-out movement,” even among public school teachers whom the unions presume to represent.

If the hard right faction of the GOP is the Tea Party, then call the hard left (right? not sure anymore) of the Democratic unionist wing the Red Bull Party. It’s like a fraternity pledge drive: aspiring bros must attest to a catechismic reverence towards local control and the eradication of the merest whisper of accountability. We see this trend in the increasing presence of groups like the Badass Teachers Association and the increasing deference towards them by AFT President Randi Weingarten and NEA President Lily Eskelson-Garcia. We see it in the increasingly shady villainization of  Teach for America, which now has proportionately more teachers of color than traditional-route teacher training programs. We see it in the unions’ demand that the U.S. Congress eliminate annual standardized testing in a newly-authorized ESEA.

We see it right in my own state of New Jersey, where parents in the two most troubled districts –Newark and Camden – plead for scant charter school seats and higher standards while local union leaders undermine reform efforts.

In Newark Public Schools, families plead for more charter schools seats — ten thousand children are on waiting lists — but NJEA leaders are lobbying for a three-year moratorium on charter school expansion.

In Camden last week a local paper reported on the reconfigured Camden public school system,  which now offers all parents choices among the city’s traditional schools and hybrid charter/traditional schools, the latter operated by Mastery, KIPP, and Uncommon. Mastery’s schools, which just opened the school year at 100% capacity, “held multiple cookouts, carnivals, and other events to strengthen ties with the community and Mastery CEO told the paper that “we are making a tremendous effort to engage parents as partners.” Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard has made community outreach a centerpiece of his strategic plan for the district.

NJEA’s response:

“Parents deserve to have a say before their children are transferred to a Renaissance School, and students and teachers have the right to be treated with fairness and dignity,” NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer said in April. “All of the people who are directly impacted by these decisions were left out of the conversation.”

Just how credible is Steinhauer’s response? Zero on the credibility meter. And, really, he’s far more moderate and statesmanlike than national union leaders.

Stewart opens his blog post with a description of how anti-reform rhetoric, specifically in NOLA, is giving him “the sick feeling that many opponents of school reform are actually rooting against kids.” That’s the dangerous dance that union leaders engage in: betting that the American public is unable to discern duplicity, unable to distinguish between that which is cynical and self-serving and that which is beneficial to schoolchildren, children, teachers, and communities.

We’re a lot smarter than that.

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1 Comment

  • kallikak, August 31, 2015 @ 7:21 pm Reply

    I think you've moved the goal posts, Laura. The absolute level of results in New Orleans—and the rest of Louisiana, for that matter—is an embarrassment. Hard to see gutting the current system with that as the goal.

    P.S. The only fair comparison to pre-Katrina NO would require tracking the former school population lost in the Diaspora following the flood. Good luck with that.

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