Koch Brothers Plan New Scheme Fully to Privatize American Education—at Public Expense

Last Friday, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank described this year’s wave of strikes and walkouts by school teachers: “Something funny happened on the way to the labor movement’s funeral.  When Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and his antilabor colleagues on the Supreme Court handed down the Janus v. AFSCME decision last June, unions braced for the worst.”  But, Milbank concludes: “Labor leaders ought to thank Alito—and send chocolates to the Koch brothers for bankrolling the anti-union court case.  Their brazen assault, combined with President Trump’s hostility toward labor, has generated a backlash, invigorating public-sector unions and making a case for the broader labor movement to return to its roots and embrace a more militant style.”

I don’t know about the implications for all of labor, and I’d argue with Milbank’s point that this year’s strikes by teachers have been primarily a response to the Janus decision. The growing wave of teachers’ strikes has instead been a cry for help from a profession of hard-working, dedicated public servants disgusted with despicable working conditions, lack of desperately needed services for their students, and insultingly low pay.

But Milbank is correct that the Janus decision has not undermined membership in the two big public sector teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association: “The American Federation of Teachers expected it might lose 30 percent of its revenue after the high court gave public-sector workers the right to be free riders, benefiting from union representation but paying nothing.  Instead, the 1.7 million-member union added 88,500 members since Janus—more than offsetting the 84,000 ‘agency-fee payers’ it lost because of the Supreme Court ruling… The NEA had projected a loss of as many as 200,000 members, based on previous drop-membership campaigns.  Instead, the 3 million-member union is actually up 13,935 members…and the increase in membership among new teachers is particularly encouraging.”

Milbank quotes Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, identifying the source of the money behind the attack on public sector unions that culminated in the Janus decision: “The Koch brothers and their team… expected us to hide under the bed and shake in our shoes… We stood up on soapboxes and stages and painted picket signs.”

It is a very good thing that the teachers’ unions are geared up for a fight, because on Tuesday, the Washington Post‘s James Hohmann reported: “The donor network led by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch will launch a new organization next month to focus on changing K-12 education as we know it.  The effort will begin as a pilot project focused on five states with a combined school-age population of 16 million kids, but officials said Monday that they aren’t ready to identify them yet because they’re still finalizing partnerships with some of the country’s leading educational organizations.”

The details of the new Koch-driven plan aren’t clear, but there are some hints: “Previewing their K-12 push, Koch strategists pointed to research being conducted with their financial support by Ashley Berner at Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for Education Policy.  Her main interest is expanding what she calls ‘educational pluralism,’ which is when government funds all types of schools, including explicitly religious ones, but does not necessarily run them.”

Hohmann quotes some of the background materials distributed when the new K-12 initiative was announced. These materials describe Berner’s work: “Berner points to examples such as the Netherlands, which funds 36 different types of schools, from Islamic to Jewish Orthodox to socialist…  Alberta, Canada funds homeschooling along with Inuit, Jewish, and secular schools.  In Australia, the central government is the nation’s top funder of independent schools. Other countries with plural school systems include Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Sweden.”

Hohmann quotes Berner, who calls her school choice plan “pluralism” and considers it a middle ground in the debate about the privatization of public education—even though her idea privileges privatized schools and seems entirely to erase the idea of a universal public school system: “It’s the democratic norm around the world.  In pluralism, choice and accountability are two sides of the same coin…  We’ve got to start supporting politicians who are willing to make compromises.  Americans are tired of the battles between charters and district schools; these take up too much energy and resources. A pluralistic system doesn’t pit entire sectors against one another.”

So… Berner steals the word “pluralism” as a new brand for multiple forms of school governance. According to Berner—and apparently the folks at the Koch network—pluralism in school governance seems to mean we’d have all sorts of privately governed and managed schools—all of them paid for with our tax dollars. The Koch Brothers are setting out to help Betsy DeVos realize her dream.

Hohmann quotes a Koch network spokesperson pretending that this new effort will not be anti-public school teacher: “For too long, this issue has been framed unnecessarily as us vs. them, public vs. private, teacher vs. student, parent vs. administrator… The teachers who have expressed frustration in the past several months are good people.  I mean, they’re teachers.  We all remember the positive impact that a teacher or several teachers have had on our lives.  They’re expressing legitimate concerns.  But the current approach means that nobody wins, so they need better options.”

Who are “the country’s leading educational organizations” with which the Koch Brothers plan to collaborate?  I am pretty sure these educational partners will not be the teachers’ unions.  In fact, we’ll be counting on the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers to provide leadership as we try to protect public schools from this new attempt to privatize the common good.

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.