Ugly Attacks on Teachers and Teachers Unions

As a candidate for President, Joseph Biden promised to appoint a teacher or someone experienced in public school education as U.S. Secretary of Education. Now as Biden is appointing the members of his Cabinet, we are reading opinion pieces filled with all the old conventional biases against schoolteachers in general and against the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Many Republicans are suspicious of teachers unions, but a lot of the current attacks on teachers are coming from Democrats—from the supporters of the “corporate school reformer” education policies of President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan. These are Democrats who adhere to the neoliberal policies that endorsed school privatization in the form of charter schools whose operation is entirely private. Some of these Democrats are people who promote business school school accountability based on incentives and punishments said to increase teachers’ productivity. The current protesters are worried about the possibility that President Elect Biden will appoint Lily Eskelsen Garcia, NEA’s recent president, or Randi Weingarten, AFT’s current president, as the next U.S. Secretary of Education.

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal printed an extraordinary classist, sexist, elitist, and insultingly anti-teacher screed by Joseph Epstein, the former editor of The American Scholar.  Here is how Epstein begins his personal attack on Jill Biden: “Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo…  Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title, ‘Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.'” Mr. Epstein continues, “The Ph.D. may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness, and the relaxation of standards in university education generally… Getting a doctorate was then an arduous proceeding: One had to pass examinations in two foreign languages, one of them Greek or Latin, defend one’s thesis, and take an oral examination on general knowledge in one’s field.” Epstein extols the intense pressure on candidates in the olden days before, as he contends, standards collapsed and the comprehensive exams became less threatening: “Dr. Jill, I note you acquired your Ed.D. as recently as 15 years ago at age 55, long after the terror had departed.”

You will have noticed that Mr. Epstein does not attack unionized teachers directly. In fact, he does not even mention that Jill Biden, an English teacher at a community college and a former high school English teacher, is a member of the NEA.  But he manages to denigrate and insult not only women (“kiddo”) and the idea that a woman might have a life and career independent of her husband (“Mrs. Biden”), but also the fact that most school teachers earn advanced degrees by going to school part time at the local state university at the same time they are teaching.  Epstein also disdains the idea that today teachers earn advanced degrees by studying issues related to pedagogy, developmental psychology, or the conditions and needs of their students. Epstein’s bias is for the ivory tower and against what education writer Mike Rose names in the title of his wonderful book about the importance of community colleges: Back To School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, An Argument for Democratizing Knowledge in America.

A month ago the Wall Street Journal also published an explicitly anti-teachers union piece by William McGurn, a former speech writer for President George W. Bush: “During his campaign, (Biden) promised to appoint a teacher as education secretary.  Now the talk is that Mr. Biden will appoint not only a teacher but the head of a teachers union… Everyone has understood that a Biden Education Department would mark a change of direction from the past four years. But to elevate to education secretary someone whose career has been spent fighting any reform aimed at relaxing the teachers union’s stranglehold on the public schools would be an astonishingly bleak admission about whose interests come first.”

Then there was Jonathan Chait’s New York Magazine  interview last week with President Barack Obama. A devotee of Obama’s pro-school reformer–pro-charter school policies, Chait asks the former president why he chose not to discuss his education policies in his new 700 page book, A Promised Land.  Obama replies that he will be exploring education policy in a second volume.  He also hedges as he explains the Race to the Top Program in which Arne Duncan required states, as the qualification to apply for a grant, to judge teachers by their students’ standardized test scores:  “I think it has to do with the fact that our reform efforts were relatively complicated to explain to the public. It’s easy to talk about ‘We’re going to put more money into buildings’ or ‘We’re going to talk about buying more books or science labs or you name it.’  It’s harder to talk about how we’re trying to create a sense of accountability, but also one that is not loading up even more rigid standardized-testing approaches that I think a lot of teachers rightly feel are suffocating.” Obama tells Chait: “What is… true is that I was fully supportive of the idea of raising expectations, raising standards, encouraging states and local school districts not to give up on kids because it’s hard.  To not assume that money is the only problem.”

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss bluntly identifies as the primary flaw in Obama’s education policies his failure to address school funding inequity and child poverty: “Race to the Top did not make systemic improvements in public education in part because it failed to address some of the most important reasons for low student achievement. It did nothing to tackle the fundamental inequity of America’s education funding, which has historically penalized high-poverty districts and rewarded wealthy ones. It also did not address out-of-school factors that affect how children perform in school—even though research shows that most of the achievement gap is driven by factors outside school.”

It was to address these two issues that candidate Joe Biden turned away from the education policies of the Obama administration in which he served as Vice President. What happened as Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan was implementing Race to the Top is that state budgets collapsed during the Great Recession in 2008, and then in 2010 in state after state, Tea Party candidates took over and began further to cut taxation.

In their new book, The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire explain that: “Of each dollar spent on education in the United States, just 8 cents comes from the federal government… The real spending action in education takes place at the state and local level. States pick up the tab for approximately 47 cents of each dollar spent on public education, while local communities contribute an additional 45 cents, primarily through property taxes. In an effort to starve the beast, then, conservatives have worked at all levels of government to reduce taxation…  Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.  In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’  Act 10 is mostly remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights.  But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools. Though Wisconsin, like many states, already capped the amount by which local communities could raise property taxes to fund schools… Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature imposed further limits, including restricting when and how local school districts can ask voters for additional help funding their schools.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,  pp. 34-36)

One of the authors of The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider published a tweet last week that captures the truth of what has happened over two decades of education policy: “Most people, when talking about “good” or “bad” schools, are talking about schools they’ve never visited in communities they don’t know. Their judgments are rooted in status ideology, rather than knowledge. If we nod our heads, we are complicit in an ignorance that harms us all.”  I believe President Elect Biden has promised to appoint someone with direct public school experience, because Biden noticed that it took teachers themselves to show us the flaws in the movement for corporate school reform and school privatization.

In a new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, constitutional scholar Derek Black reminds us what happened: “In the spring of 2018, teachers across the nation waged a full-scale revolt, shutting down public schools and marching on state capitals in the reddest of red states. From West Virginia and Kentucky to Oklahoma and Arizona, teachers went on strike over the condition of public education. Stagnant and depressed teacher salaries were the initial focal point, but as the protests spread, it became clear that teachers were marching for far more than their salaries. They were marching for school supplies, school services, class sizes, and more. They were marching for states to reverse the massive budget cuts of the past decade and stop funneling more resources into charters and vouchers.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 23-24)

President Elect Biden may or may not choose a member of a teachers union as the next education secretary, but it’s time to stop permitting the corporate-accountability school reformers and charter school privatizers to trash the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. And it is time for us all to examine the stereotypes by which we define school teachers. It ought to be utterly unacceptable to insult Jill Biden for teaching at a community college and for earning an advanced degree at night school at the University of Delaware at the same time she was teaching high school during the day in Wilmington.

Supreme Court Decision in “Janus v. AFSCME” Will Undermine Teachers Unions and the Common Good

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court released its long anticipated decision in Janus v. AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). The decision undermines workers’ rights by threatening the fiscal viability public sector unions, including teachers unions.

The same issue—union agency (fair share) fees—was heard in 2016 by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, but after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the court split 4-4, and the issue at the heart of the case was left unresolved.  After President Donald Trump appointed conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, and after the new case of Janus v. AFSCME was appealed to the high court, yesterday’s decision ending fair share fees had been expected.

Yesterday’s 5 to 4 decision was written by Justice Samuel Alito, Jr., joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch.

Yesterday’s decision finds union agency fees to be a violation of First Amendment free speech, and stops the practice of forcing public sector employees, who choose not to join a union but whose job is protected as part of a union contract, to pay a fee to cover the collective bargaining part of the union’s work. Non-members (still covered by their unit’s collective bargaining agreement) have not been paying any fee to cover the political activity of their unions, but they have, until now, been required to pay agency fees to cover bargaining.

A report released last February by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) explains how fair share, agency fees work: “Just like in any democratic institution, when a majority of employees in a bargaining unit choose to be represented by a union, the union then becomes the exclusive bargaining representative of all workers in the unit. The union has a responsibility to represent all workers in the unit, union members and employees who decide not to join the union alike, and the employer has a duty to bargain with the union over employees’ wages and working conditions.  Unions may bargain to include union security agreements, which allow them to collect fair share fees (also known as ‘agency’ fees) from employees who do not join the union but are part of the bargaining unit… Nonmembers’ fair share fees cover the union’s expenses related to collective bargaining and contract administration, but not expenses for political… advocacy…  A union is required to represent a nonmember worker who is mistreated by the employer as the nonmember pursues a costly grievance process, even if it costs the union tens of thousands of dollars. Fair share fees enable the union to charge nonmember workers for the right to access that service if they need it… Workers who choose not to pay union dues also receive the higher wages and benefits that the union negotiates on behalf of its members… Taking away unions’ ability to collect fair share fees—while they are nonetheless required to provide services and representation to nonmembers—would threaten the very essence of unions by weakening their financial stability.”

Weakening public sector unions is part of the far-right corporate political agenda. Political economist Gordon Lafer describes the impact of the the Red-wave 2010 election that turned more than half the states all-Republican: “For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power, and the size of government… Starting in 2011, the country has witnessed an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at eliminating public employee unions, or where they remain, strictly limiting their right to bargain… The number of public sector jobs eliminated in 2011 was the highest ever recorded, and budgets for essential public services were dramatically scaled back in dozens of states.” (The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time, pp. 44-45)

The Economic Policy Institute report examines the organizations behind the current wave of attacks on unions along with the funders who have underwritten the legal onslaught: “The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Center for Individual Rights, and Liberty Justice Center (an affiliate of the Illinois Policy Institute which has close ties with Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, who has been involved with the Janus case since the beginning) are separate nonprofit organizations, but they share many of the same donors.”  The donors are a who’s who of the extreme right: Donors Trust/Donors Capital Fund, Sarah Sciafe Foundation, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, and Dunn’s Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking.  EPI continues: “How do these groups benefit by limiting workers rights?  Anti-worker policies shift a greater share of economic gains to corporate players and away from ordinary workers… As union membership has fallen over the last few decades, the share of income going to the top 10 percent has steadily increased… The erosion of collective bargaining is a core part of our nation’s problems of wage stagnation and rising inequality.  Workers who are not in a union have much less power to negotiate…”

Writing for The American Prospect, Celine McNicholas and Heidi Shierholz describe what has happened in Wisconsin following an attack on public sector unions led by Governor Scott Walker: “In dollars-and-cents terms, efforts to shrink state and local workforces and reduce public-sector workers’ compensation in order to reduce taxes disproportionately benefit the wealthiest households.  Wisconsin provides an important example of this impact.  Lawmakers there passed $2 billion worth of tax cuts from 2011 to 2014, paid for by the layoffs and wage and benefit cuts of public employees.  Far from benefiting the average taxpayer, fully half of the tax cuts went to the richest 20 percent of the state’s population.  An examination of Wisconsin’s education system reveals negative outcomes following the passage of a law that virtually eliminated collective bargaining rights for most state and local government workers.  Far from improving public services after the law passed, teacher turnover accelerated and teacher experience shrank; nearly a quarter of the state’s teachers for the 2015-2016 school year had less than five years of experience, up from one in five… in the 2010-2011 school year.  These data demonstrate that attacks on state and local government workers are likely to result in reductions in the quality of public services on which most state residents depend.  For families who depend on public education, maintaining a stable, experienced education workforce is critical.  And it is the stability and experience of state and local government workers—and the quality of services they provide—that is at stake in the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus.”

While the Janus plaintiff is a member of AFSCME, not a teacher’s union, McNicholas and Shierholz believe the effect of yesterday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court will have perhaps the greatest impact on teachers unions. Public schools are likely to be the institutions most affected simply because of the sheer number of public employees who are educators. Educators comprise 51 percent of all state and local government workers, with elementary and secondary school workers making up 39.9 of all public state and local employees.

McNicholas and Shierholz caution about the overall impact of yesterday’s Supreme Court decision: “This is what is at the core of Janus—whether a group of wealthy donors and corporations will be allowed to rewrite our nation’s rules to serve their own interests at the expense of the public good.  The financial backers of this litigation likely do not rely on public services to educate their children, care for aging parents, or provide support for disabled family members.  Increasingly, the wealthiest interests in this country are able to bypass the state for fundamental services. They exist apart from local communities and divorced from a shared interest in many public services. This results in cases such as Janus in which wealthy, corporate interests look for ways to reduce public spending on services that they don’t need to rely on. These wealthy corporate interests are not just attacking state and local government unions’ ability to protect good, middle-class jobs in public employment—they are also attacking the crucial services on which most Americans depend.”

By Threatening Protections for Teachers, “Janus” Case Also Threatens Students’ Interests

Jeff Bryant’s piece on Tuesday about what the St. Paul Federation of Teachers accomplished in its recent negotiations and threatened strike couldn’t be more timely. The union negotiated an agreement with the school district on February 12, 2018.

After all, on Monday, February 26, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Janus v. AFSCME.  This is the most recent case to challenge union “agency” or “shop” fees charged to teachers or other public employees who elect not to join a union but whose interests are represented by the union they have chosen not to join. These non-members are already exempt from paying the portion of union membership fees that cover the union’s political activity. The current case was brought by Mark Janus an Illinois member of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council.

The Associated Press‘s Mark Sherman explains the Janus case targeting public employee unions: “The unions represent more than 5 million government workers in 24 states and the District of Columbia.”  The U.S. Supreme Court considered the same issue two years ago in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, but the justices split 4 to 4 after Justice Antonin Scalia died. At the time, after Justice Scalia’s death, Louis Freedberg reported for EdSource that the, “U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition from the plaintiffs… to rehear the case that the court had already ruled on in a 4-4 opinion….” Experts are less optimistic about the Janus case, because President Trump’s very conservative appointee Neil Gorsuch will likely decide the case.

These court cases to deny membership dues to public employee unions are, of course, an attack on the continued existence and political power of the unions themselves. These days teachers unions are in the cross hairs because of their size and political power.  Jeff Bryant covers the recent settlement negotiated between the St. Paul, Minnesota teachers union, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, and the school district’s administration only hours before a threatened teachers’ strike. Bryant’s piece demonstrates why a decision to undermine teachers unions in the Janus case would undermine the public interest—in this case by denying urgently needed services for the children in the schools of St. Paul, Minnesota. At the heart of the union contract being negotiated were demands that the school district invest in direct programming for children.

Nick Faber, the president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, is described by Bryant, framing the threatened teachers’ strike about “things that have to do with students.” Bryant continues: “While the union got quick tentative agreements on ‘cost-neutral’ proposals the district was most reluctant to agree on things that cost money, including reducing class sizes, improving education services for English learners and special education students, and funding the implementation of restorative practices—an approach to school discipline that focuses on reconciliation rather than harsh punishments. Reducing class sizes necessitates hiring more teachers and perhaps building more classrooms.  Improving the learning experiences for children who don’t speak English well or who have learning disabilities requires hiring new staff specialists….  And implementing new discipline practices means teachers have to be trained in the new practices and they need time for the process of reconciliation to play out.”

Bryant explores serious school funding challenges even in a state known historically for being relatively generous to schools: “Minnesota, normally thought of as one of the more progressive states in the nation, has for the past few decades trended with most of the rest of the country in cutting public services while giving more tax breaks to private organizations and the wealthiest individuals.  Education funding has been particularly hard hit, with aid to public schools nearly $1 billion short, in inflation adjusted dollars of what it was in FY 2003, according to a calculation by the North Star Policy Institute. Nearly $400 million of this reduction is concentrated in just two districts: Minneapolis and St. Paul, the districts with the highest concentrations of low-income black and brown students. Recently, Minnesota increased education spending to slightly exceed pre-recession levels. But funding increases have been too small to keep pace with the growing needs of educating English language learners and students with learning disabilities.

No strike by school teachers during a contract negotiation can command an increase in either state funding or local school taxes, but, according to Bryant, “Using their contract negotiations as leverage, St. Paul teachers aimed to address under-funding by publicly calling on the district to join forces with them to go after big money holders to pay their fair share to support public schools.”  One demand is that large, tax-free nonprofits, which are making relatively small  “compensatory” donations to the schools as gifts, begin to make gifts that are commensurate with their size. “The city had also given businesses millions of dollars in various forms of tax abatements….  And big businesses use their charitable contributions to local schools for public relations purposes while dodging far larger amounts of tax contributions they could be paying to the community.” “St. Paul Federation of Teachers presented a detailed analysis showing Minnesota corporations had benefited from changes in state laws to substantially lower their effective tax rates and sequester much of their holdings in offshore tax havens.”

It will be important to watch whether the St. Paul Federation of Teachers’ advocacy for fairer and more generous taxing policies pays off by yielding local changes in policies like tax abatement and in state school finance increases, but in the meantime, according to union president Faber, “We spend a lot of time coalition building with other local organizations.” Bryant concludes, “One consequence of this kind of broad-based organizing is that parents in St. Paul are visibly on the teachers’ side and have become vehemently opposed to any proposals to further cut funding for their children’s schools.”

Minnesota is a state where public employee collective bargaining remains strong, unlike its neighbor, Wisconsin, which led the attack on public sector unions—beginning in 2011, after the 2010 red tide in which eleven states experienced the election of trifecta Republican governments—senate, house, and governor. Here is Gordon Lafer, in The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time, describing the anti-union wave across these states: “Starting in 2011, the country has witnessed an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at eliminating public employee unions or, where they remain, strictly limiting their right to bargain.  At the same time, the overall size of government has been significantly reduced in both union and nonunion jurisdictions. The number of public jobs eliminated in 2011 was the highest ever recorded, and budgets for essential public services were dramatically scaled back in dozens of states. All of this–deunionization, sharp cuts in public employee compensations, and the dramatic rollback of public services–was forcibly championed by the corporate lobbies, who made shrinking the public sector a top policy priority in state after state… Furthermore, cuts in public services were not made reluctantly—as a temporary calamity to be mitigated whenever possible—but were embraced by legislators as an affirmative policy choice. Many of the states that enforced the most draconian cuts simultaneously adopted new tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy…”  (pp. 45-46) “The labor movement serves as the primary political counterweight to the corporate agenda on a long list of issues that are not per se labor-related. To the extent that unions can be removed as a politically meaningful force, the rest of the agenda becomes much easier to execute.” (p. 93)

As we watch what happens with the Janus case later this spring, it will be important to remember that in St. Paul, Minnesota, as the teachers’ contract came up for negotiation this winter, the teachers demanded as negotiating points the expansion of programs needed by their students. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers lifted up the need to reduce class size, improve education services for English learners and special education students, and redesign the discipline system to focus on mediation and reconciliation rather than harsh punishments. And the union made a point of challenging tax breaks to benefit corporations and the wealthy, who, teachers insisted, should be supporting the wellbeing of the community and its children.

Update: For an in-depth discussion of the Janus case and its implications, check out this article in today’s Detroit News.

Common Cause Takes on Wealthy NY School Privatizers and ALEC

Common Cause New York has just published a scathing report that, “shows how political spending around education issues has spiraled in New York State, making it virtually impossible for everyday New Yorkers not already aligned with either side of the issue to obtain objective information or have their voices heard.  While in the past, education union political strength has resulted in the adoption of measures favored by teachers, the infusion of direct campaign contributions on the part of privatizers has resulted in (proposed) education scholarship tax credit bills that significantly advantage the wealthy in ways not seen in other states….”

Who are the top ten political donors and privatizers who have made donations—between 2005-and 2014—to organizations supporting privatization of public education, expansion of charter schools, and stiff accountability for teachers tied to test scores? Common Cause identifies these donors: Michael Bloomberg who launched corporate school reform during his three terms—$9,203,195;  David Koch—$1,609,627; James Simons—$3,007,350; Paul Singer (board member of Success Academy Charters and Manhattan Institute)—$2,202,770; Daniel Loeb (chair of Success Academy Charter Board, co-founder of Students First New York, contributor to New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany)—$1,941,367; Paul Tudor Jones, II (founding member of Students First New York,  founder of Excellence Charter School, supporter of charter schools through his Robin Hood Foundation, funder of New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany PAC)—$1,547,750; Bruce Kovner (founder of School Choice Scholarship Fund, funder of Bronx Preparatory Charter School and the Brighter Choice Foundation), $1,445,100; Roger Hertog (founding chair of Foundation for Opportunity in Education, board member of StudentsFirst New York, supporter of New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany PAC—$1,445,735; Julian Robertson, Jr. (founder of PAVE charter schools)—$1,113,477; and Joel Greenblatt (Chair of Success Academy Charter School Board, co-founder Democrats for Education Reform, contributor to New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany PAC)—$934,740.

While education unions and their allies spent $117.4 million in lobbying and non-candidate expenditures from 2005-2014, giving by advocates for privatization was only $44 million, but donations from those who favor privatization have grown rapidly since 2010 and have come from fewer than 400 wealthy individuals.  In contrast, union donations have been made by, “at least 75,000 contributions to Union PACS from well over 18,000 individuals, associated organizations and PACS.”  According to Common Cause, “Pro-privatization spending in substantial amounts is a recent phenomenon, showing exponential growth in the last five years, while union spending has remained at a fairly high constant level over the last 10 years.  In 2014, education privatization interests outspent education unions on contributions by $3.15 million.”

Here is what happened in 2014 to transform educational lobbying in the state of New York: “2014 was a game changer for privatizer spending, not only in campaign contributions, but also in lobbying.  Families for Excellent Schools (FES) yet another charity-advocacy organization created by the same hedge fund billionaires active throughout the country (which shares office space with StudentsFirst NY) registered as a lobbyist for the first time in NYS (New York State) in March, 2014.  FES’s lobbying expenditures eclipsed all other (New York donor) organizations in every industry, placing it at the top of the JCOPE annual list of lobbying entities ranked by total lobbying expenditures.  The $9,670,372 FES spent lobbying is almost $5 million more than NYSUT (New York State United Teachers) and UFT (United Federation of Teachers) combined lobbying for 2014.  What is even more incredible is that the majority of the FES lobbying spending was spent in March and April of 2014… This tidal wave of money was directly aimed at influencing how the 2014 NYS budget handled education policy, and FES added muscle to another privatizer player backed by hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner, The Foundation for Opportunity in Education…  FES has received millions of dollars in combined funding from the Walton Foundation, the Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation—the very same foundations funding Democrats for Education Reform, the Success Charter School network, StudentsFirst, and ALEC—to name just a few.”

Common Cause has made the exposure of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) the centerpiece of its work, and this report covers ALEC in some depth, especially in relation to the bills that Governor Andrew Cuomo is supporting that would bring tuition tax credit school vouchers to New York.  Here is how Common Cause describes ALEC: “Through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), some of the nation’s largest companies invest millions of dollars each year to pass state laws putting corporate and private interests ahead of the interests of ordinary Americans. ALEC’s membership includes some 2,000 state legislators, corporate executives and lobbyists.  ALEC brings together corporate lobbyists and state legislators to vote as equals on model bills, behind closed doors and without any public input, that often benefit the corporations’ bottom line.  These model bills are then introduced in the state legislatures across the country…. Among ALEC’s legislative portfolio are bills to privatize public schools and prisons, weaken voting rights, eviscerate environmental protections and cripple public worker unions.  Common Cause has filed a ‘whistleblower’ complaint against ALEC with the Internal Revenue Service, accusing the group of violating its tax-exempt status by operating as a lobby while claiming to be a charity.”  Common Cause’s New York report concludes that ALEC model bills including “The Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act” and the “Parental Choice Scholarship Accountability Act” appear to be the templates for the tuition tax credit school voucher program Governor Cuomo is trying to get New York’s legislature to include in next year’s budget, currently being debated.

Common Cause concludes: “The current trend of market-based education proposals can be seen as interrelated to the ideology and policy goals that contributed to the pre-2008 deregulations of the financial industry and to the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC.  Using a long term, multi-pronged strategy, the self-styled ‘education reform’ organizations (whose boards are populated by the very hedge fund executives who have dominated Super PAC contributions since the Citizens United decision) are framing this issue.  They have used their wealth to access and infiltrate the policy landscape on almost every front except one: the teachers’ unions.  In an increasingly polarized debate, these camps are battling for ideological control of the future of education policy at all levels of government.”

I encourage you to read this lucid report packed with information.

Who Is Campbell Brown and Why Is She Trying to Discredit Teachers (and Their Unions)?

Time Magazine‘s November 3, 2014 cover that scapegoats teachers by implying that the profession protects a whole lot of “bad apples” has brought the California Vergara court decision back into the news and once again brought us Campbell Brown, whose face is familiar as a former CNN news anchor.  Her new mission is represented by her new organization, the Partnership for Educational Justice, that has begun bringing Vergara-like lawsuits across the states to oppose due process for teachers.  Yesterday in a post, It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers, this blog explored how wrong it is that Time (on its magazine cover) is attacking a whole profession of people in this country—about 5 million school teachers.  Today we’ll review what has become a far-right attack on public school teachers, and why outlawing due process for teachers is probably not a very good idea—not only from the point of view of the teachers but also from the perspective of the students in their classes.

The review must begin with Michelle Rhee, however, because she launched the attack on teachers long before Campbell Brown left her position at CNN.  Michelle Rhee made her mark as the Washington, D.C. schools chancellor who, according to Rhee herself, set out to put the interests of “students first” over the interests of the adults who worked for the D.C. schools.  Rhee portrayed teachers—through their union—as protecting their own “adult”  interests above the needs of the children.  The adult interests Rhee was talking about were things like their salaries, their health insurance, and their job protection.  Rhee surely didn’t believe in job protection; she became famous for firing lots of teachers and school administrators.  She fired one principal publicly during a video being filmed by John Merrow for the PBS News Hour.  It was later shown that any test score gains during Rhee’s tenure were the result of gentrification, that the racial achievement gap widened during Rhee’s years, and that she left the District under the cloud of allegations of a massive test score cheating scandal that was never fully investigated. She went on to found StudentsFirst, a national PAC that has attacked teachers unions, supported corporate school reformers for positions on local school boards and state legislatures, and supported vouchers.  Just months ago, however, StudentsFirst closed state affiliates in Minnesota, Florida, Maine, Indiana and Iowa.  Michelle Rhee has resigned as its executive director, while she has remained on its board.  She has also joined the board of Scotts MiracleGro.

As Rhee’s star has been falling as the leader of the attack on school teachers, Campbell Brown has stepped in to lead a series of lawsuits to destroy due process protection for teachers. According to the NY Times, Campbell Brown is married to Dan Senor, who was a foreign affairs advisor to presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  Senor has also served on the board of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst. In June we learned from Stephanie Simon at Politico that Brown and her campaign, the Partnership for Educational Justice, had joined with a politically connected  Washington, D.C. public relations firm, the Incite Agency, where Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s former press secretary, and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt have been hired to create a national public relations drive to promote Campbell Brown’s lawsuits.  You will note that Brown has been working to make her organization bi-partisan.  She has made David Boies a member of her board.  He is the high profile attorney who represented Al Gore back in 2000 at the U.S. Supreme Court when the presidential election was in question, and he represented gay couples seeking to protect their right to marry when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned California Proposition 8.

The other primary character in the attack on tenure is David Welch, who launched the original Vergara case in California.  He is a Silicon Valley telecommunications entrepreneur whose not-for-profit organization, Students Matter and its chosen student plaintiffs alleged that tenure protects bad teachers, and that tenure, therefore, violates the civil rights of students living in poor school districts. Welch and Students Matter hired as plaintiff attorneys former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson and Theodore Boutrous, Jr., a corporate attorney who represents Walmart and who represented George W. Bush against Al Gore in 2000, when the Florida recount reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee, has noted that in Vergara,  “Welch is seconded by groups such as Ben Austin’s Parent Revolution and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, with funding help from Eli Broad and the Walton Family Foundation, all of which have battled teachers unions and supported charter schools and ‘transformational’ change in public education.”  In June,  Judge Rolf True found for the plaintiffs. The case is being appealed, and many have questioned whether a firm case can be made that tenure is a civil rights matter.

Last Thursday, in a fine article published by the New York Daily News, Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean and Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law analyzed the contentions made by attorneys for the plaintiffs in Vergara.  Chemerinsky writes: “American public education desperately needs to be improved, especially for the most disadvantaged children.  But eliminating teachers’ job security and due-process rights is not going to attract better educators—or do much to improve school quality…  The reality is that job security and protection against arbitrary treatment are terms and conditions of employment that, like higher wages, attract good people into teaching and keep them in the classroom…  It should be noted that teachers in the United States work more hours and are paid less than their counterparts in almost every other developed country—and their salaries have fallen dramatically relative to pay for comparable jobs in our economy since 1940.”

Chemerinsky continues, “The causal relationship alleged by the plaintiffs in these lawsuits—that teachers’ rights cause minority students to receive substandard educations—is belied by readily available empirical evidence.  If the plaintiffs were correct, similarly situated students in states with weak protection of teachers—such as Texas, Alabama and Mississippi—would have higher levels of achievement and the racial achievement gap would be smaller in those states. But…. every year, the states with the highest student performance are those with robust protections for teachers—places like Maryland and Massachusetts.”

He concludes: “The plaintiffs who are bringing these lawsuits have misappropriated the soaring rhetoric and fundamental principles of the civil rights movement… Cloaking the attack on teachers’ rights in the rhetoric of the civil rights movement is misleading.  Lessening the legal protections for teachers will not advance civil rights or improve education.” “The problem of inner-city schools is not that the dedicated teachers who work in them have too many rights, but that the students who go to them are disadvantaged in many ways, the schools have inadequate resources and the schools are surrounded by communities that are dangerous, lack essential services and are largely segregated by both race and class.  Taking the modest job security accorded by tenure away from teachers will address none of these problems.”

Vergara Copycat Lawsuit in NY Attacks Teachers Instead of Injustice, Say Experts

In June of this year, California Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down tenure and seniority protections for California’s K-12 school teachers in the case of Vergara v. California.  According to Treu’s decision, tenure protects bad teachers, bad teachers are more often assigned to the schools serving California’s most disadvantaged students, and the assignment of bad teachers (protected by tenure and seniority rights) violates the students’ civil rights under the equal protection clause of the state constitution. Many speculate the case will be overturned on appeal, and Judge Treu has stayed his decision pending the appeal.

Opponents of tenure have promised to launch copycat lawsuits against school teachers’ job protections in other states. Earlier this month, such a lawsuit was filed in New York on Staten Island by a group called the New York City Parents Union. While Mona Davids, president of the New York City Parents Union, told the NY Times that her lawsuit is different because it is “not being bankrolled by outside interests,” the research blogger, Mother Crusader, has connected the group’s board members to three organizations that actively oppose teachers unions and seek to privatize public education: Democrats for Education Reform, NYCAN, and StudentsFirstNY.

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post reports that Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor who has transformed herself into an advocate against job protections for teachers, has created her own organization, the Partnership for Educational Justice, for the purpose of her crusade.  She has hired the public relations firm of former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, according to Stephanie Simon of Politico, to “lead a national public relations drive to support a series of lawsuits aimed at challenging tenure, seniority and other job protections that teachers unions have defended.”  Brown has said her organization will be involved in New York.  (This blog covered the Campbell Brown, Robert Gibbs, Ben LaBolt endeavor here.)

On Tuesday of this week, two heavyweight public school justice advocates went on the offensive against the New York attempt to claim that due process protections for teachers deny children’s civil right to an education.  Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, and David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center—both involved for years in lawsuits in New York and New Jersey to protect the rights of children to adequately funded education—published an opinion piece in the Albany Times Union.

The Staten Island lawsuit, they declare, completely misses the point: “The lawsuit gets one thing right,” they charge, “Children in high poverty, urban and rural school districts across the state are indeed being deprived of their constitutional right to a sound basic education.  What it gets completely wrong is why:  the state’s continuing failure to fairly fund high need schools so they can recruit, support and retain effective teachers and deliver rich instruction in math, science, world languages, the arts and other core subjects under optimal working conditions.”

In the case of Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, New York’s high court defined the “sound basic education” to which all children in New York have a right. In response the New York General Assembly enacted the 2007 Foundation Aid Formula, which increased school funding across the state by more than $5 billion to be phased in over four years. However, “After two years, the state walked away from its commitment to our most disadvantaged children and schools.  The funding shortfall now totals a staggering $5.7 billion, with the greatest impact on schools with the highest need.”

According to Sciarra and Easton the shortage has “cut teachers by the thousands…. In five years, Yonkers cut 500 staff members, losing half of the reading teachers and all math coaches.  Schenectady has shed 40-50 positions annually, cutting music teachers by half, and letting go librarians, instructional coaches and writing instructors… Predictably, these staff reductions have sparked drastic increases in class size.  Teachers now routinely face classes of 30 students or more.”

Easton and Sciarra conclude: “The good news is parents and students across New York know better.  They have stepped up by the thousands to let Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators know that they will no longer tolerate an underfunded, under-resourced, third-rate education.  And they will not be distracted by frivolous, irrelevant lawsuits.”

More on Conflicts of Interest When Philanthropists Sponsor the News

Yesterday this blog covered the story by David Sirota about the Public Broadcasting Service’s solicitation of a grant of $3.5 million from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to pay for a series, The Pension Peril, that represents the point of view of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.  PBS has returned the money and said the series, which had already begun airing, will go on hiatus.

David Sirota followed up his original story with more here on issues of philanthropic sponsorship of programming at PBS.

Thanks to Diane Ravitch’s blog for bringing attention to Sirota’s important articles.

PBS’s ombudsman comments here.

Attacks on public pensions are central to the corporate school deform agenda to lower salaries and reduce due process for teachers.  This is all part of the attack on teachers unions.  After all, if we economize by paying teachers less, have an easier time getting rid of those expensive older teachers, and deny teachers things like fringe benefits including pensions, we can all pay less taxes.

Make no mistake, this is central to the attack on the price we pay for being the civilized society we like to believe we are.