A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Archive for July, 2016

Let’s Start Looking at What’s at Stake

To my Bernie or Bust friends, I believe it important to look more deeply at what Bernie Sanders said last night when he talked about the contribution of his campaign to the Democratic Party Platform. To my friends who are unionists and who understand in their bones how the decline of the American labor movement parallels the decline of America’s middle class, take a look at this passage from the platform on workers’ rights.

“Protecting Workers’ Fundamental Rights The Democratic Party believes that when workers are strong, America is strong. Democrats will make it easier for workers, public and private, to exercise their right to organize and join unions. We will fight to pass laws that direct the National Labor Relations Board to certify a union if a simple majority of eligible workers sign valid authorization cards, as well as laws that bring companies to the negotiating table. We support binding arbitration to help workers who have voted to join a union reach a first contract. A major factor in the 40-year decline in the middle class is that the rights of workers to bargain collectively for better wages and benefits have been under attack at all levels. Donald Trump would make matters worse by creating a race to the bottom where the middle class is fighting over fewer and fewer good-paying jobs. In fact, Trump rejected some attempts by his own employees to unionize and has personally hired union-busting firms to undermine workers’ rights. Democrats believe so-called “right to work” laws are wrong for workers—such as teachers and other public employees who serve our communities every day—and wrong for America. We will continue to vigorously oppose those laws and other efforts that would eliminate dues check-off procedures, roll-back prevailing wage standards, abolish fair share requirements, restrict the use of voluntary membership payments for political purposes, attack seniority, restrict due process protections, and require annual recertification efforts. We oppose legislation and lawsuits that would strike down laws protecting the rights of teachers and other public employees. We will defend President Obama’s overtime rule, which protects of millions of workers by paying them fairly for their hard work.”

You will search in vain for anything to do with workers’ rights in the Republican Party Platform. Contrast this passage with the one above. Then tell me how any union member can flirt with the idea of supporting Donald Trump. Tell me how any union member could be so preoccupied with the flaws in Hillary Clinton that they can overlook what Trump and the Republican Part have in mind for the American worker.

“The greatest asset of the American economy is the hard-working American. That is why our first priority is getting people back to work by fostering the kind of growth that creates jobs. That overarching goal unites all the sections of this platform. It runs through our commitments on education and workforce development. It underlies our approach to welfare reform, regulatory reform, and our determination to advance the kind of trade agreements that multiply opportunities for workers here at home. It also impels us to challenge the anachronistic labor laws that limit workers’ freedom and lock them into the workplace rules of their great-grandfathers. Instead of facilitating change, the current Administration and its agents at the National Labor Relations Board are determined to reverse it. They are attacking the franchise model of business development, which is essential to the flexibility and creativity of the new economy. They are wielding provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act from the 1930s, designed to fit a manufacturing workplace, to deny flexibility to both employers and employees. They have repealed union transparency rules that allowed members to discover what was being done with their dues. They have outlawed alternatives to unions even when they were favored by the workers. Their Project Labor Agreements discriminate against the overwhelming majority of workers by barring them from jobs on taxpayer-funded projects. Their patronizing and controlling approach leaves workers in a form of peonage to the NLRB. We intend to restore fairness and common sense to that agency.”

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Trump Junior

While it may be for naught, I will continue to try to reason with those teacher union members considering voting for Donald Trump or the Libertarian or Green Party candidates. Thos e familiar with my political positions know that I’m not a great fan of Hillary’s, but if we are interested in public education, we have to put our energy into stopping Donald Trump from becoming President of the United States. That means voting for Hillary.

If you watched Donald Junior’s speech last night you hear enough to frighten you into the reality of what we must do. If you missed it, be sure you watch it here. After you do, think about the anti-intellectual theme running throughout – the suggestion that educated, credentialed people somehow know nothing about the world. Listen to the appeal to the uneducated. More importantly, at 16 minutes and 48 seconds into the speech, listen to the indictment of public education, its teachers and administrators and the due process protections of tenure. Although plagiarized in part, the speech echoes those who have wages a well-financed, coordinated campaign to discredit the public schools of our nation in order to privatize them.

Why would any public school employee vote for a candidate who obviously places no value on the work that we do and who poses an existential threat to the institution we cherish – public schools?

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A Good Day for Public Education

It seems at least probable that my criticism of our union leaders for their failure to win concessions from Hillary Clinton that she would end the tenure of Education Secretary John King was premature. The final democratic platform plank on education is excellent on the uses of testing and the right of parents to opt their children out of high stakes tests. It’s even better than it might have been on charter schools, coming out against for profit charters and, more importantly, taking a reasonably strong stand on preventing charters from negatively influencing neighborhood public schools. I was very glad to see that AFT President Randi Weingarten was influential in winning significant changes from some of the original language proposals. To be sure, Hillary is not bound to govern by the language of the platform, but, realistically, she can’t very well continue the Obama administration’s testing oriented education policies. Neither is there going to be a place for a John King to implement policy derived from this platform.

I won’t be too surprised if Hillary has to tip-toe around this plank in her speeches and debates. Her strongest support is the African American community, many of whose leaders are strongly in favor of high stakes testing. Many in this community believe that absent test based school and teacher accountability systems, the schools their children attend, schools that are too often seriously under-resourced, will languish. She needs to find a way to show how the schools in all communities are negatively impacted by the uses of standardized tests that were never designed to rate schools, teachers or kids for that matter.

I hope news of the Democratic platform on education gives heart to some of my teacher union friends who are still grieving for the defeat of Bernie Sanders. It ought to go a long way to have them understand that the choice between Hillary and Trump is not at all between two evils. Hillary and the Dems are clearly recognizing the failure of the Obama education policy and committing to rolling back some of its essential features. That’s progress! It’s not perfection, but it moves us forward.

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Will King Ever Be Gone?

Why are none of our nation education union leaders publically demanding that Hillary respond to Secretary John King’s decree that school with more than 5 percent opt-out rate be treated as failing schools and be sanctioned by the feds? Many of us knew this would happen when President Obama poked his finger in the eyes of America’s teachers by naming King to be his Secretary of Education succeeding Arne Duncan who did more to diminish the stature of the teaching profession than I can remember. We desperately need to hear from Hillary that she will rid us of this anti-public education secretary.

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Why Bother to Meet?

I’ve taken a few days to think about late week’s NEA convention before writing about it. I found myself unsure of whether it was the most boring and inconsequential NEA convention I had ever attended did I see it that way for some reason owing to my recent retirement. The more I think about it, the more I’m sure it’s the former.

For an organization under attack from many quarters, for a union that has bled substantial membership in recent years, there was surprisingly little in the way of calls to action. If this had been one’s first national meeting, one would think that all is so well that all we have to talk about are the rules by which we run our conventions. It was truly alarming to listen to speaker after speaker offer some suggestion about how we might change our rules to facilitate our meeting, speakers who ironically clearly had nothing on their minds of substance to talk about.

NEA Executive Director John Stocks offered up an impassioned speech the theme of which was that we have to listen to the needs of our newest members of the profession. While his manner bespoke serious business, the content of his remarks were almost humorous by comparison. Is our teacher union movement in such bad shape that the activists of the organization have to be reminded to listen to the members? What a missed opportunity to send people home from the convention with a serious mission.

I would hazard a guess that a majority of the delegates came from local unions that do not have one hundred percent membership. Imagine if someone in leadership had worked the crowd up to have each one go home and recruit one new member this year, one new member. What if the 10,000 or so activists were asked to go home and make an immediate visit to the office of their Congressperson to demand that the recent ESSA legislation be implemented as written and not as Secretary King has interpreted it? I’m always amazed that we gather our union activists at great cost to meetings and send them home with nothing specific to do, all the while talking about the need to organize.

Hillary spoke to a wildly enthusiastic crowd. While some in the press suggest that she signaled a pronounced break from the education policies of the Obama administration, I found her comments so nuanced as to be unsure of exactly what her positions are other than we will have a seat at the table and that she has our backs. Clearly no one in NEA leadership pressed her before hand to explicitly repudiate the corporate education reform movement. If they warned her about saying anything positive about charter schools, she certainly paid them no heed, drawing some loud boos from the audience when she alluded to them positively. Our organizations demand so little in exchange for our support.

I continue to be bitterly disappointed by the performance of Lily Eskelsen Garcia, our NEA president. With personality traits that at once make people like her, this person of enormous political talent has essentially frittered away her time in office. She is ideally suited to be the face of the anti-corporate reformers. Yet she and the NEA she leads always appear to be reluctant to take them on, often opting instead for engagement with them in the hope of convincing them of the errors of their ways. I’m all for keeping hope alive, but……

If big, expensive meetings like the national conventions of the NEAand AFT are not to be about inspiring and motivating the unions’ activists to build the organization in some way, enlarging its power and prestige, if after we have met there is nothing specific for the attendees to do to build and energize our movement, must we not consider some better use for the resources put into organizing these meetings?

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