National Teachers Unions Intensify War on Reformers

-By Larry Sand

NEA and AFT ramp up attacks on non-existent teacher bashers, while vilifying those who are trying to reform a failing system

In her address last week at the American Federation of Teachers TEACH conference, AFT President Randi Weingarten came out swinging. In an emotional speech to the faithful, she said that education reform should come from teachers and their communities, rather than from people “who blame teachers for everything.” While the teachers unions have been hammering away at this “blame the teacher” myth for some time now, the rants seem to be intensifying.

Invariably, what is labeled “teacher bashing” is nothing more than anger at the teachers unions for blocking every type of education reform imaginable, as well as the unions doing their level best to block school districts’ attempts to fire bad and even criminal teachers. So to be more specific, these phenomena should be called “teacher union bashing” and “bad teacher bashing.”

Education writer RiShawn Biddle does an excellent job of poking holes in the teacher bashing argument, claiming, among other things, that Weingarten “is just using a rhetorical trick often deployed by teachers unions and other education traditionalists to oppose school reform. They declare that any criticism of the unions and any effort to overhaul teacher quality are forms of ‘teacher bashing.’ And such proclamations end up forcing reformers onto their heels when they should actually take these critics to the woodshed.”

“Reformophobia” was also an important component at the yearly National Education Association convention that wrapped up a couple of weeks ago. At the NEA confab, we heard the same petulant tone from teachers who came from all over the country and convened as part of the Representative Assembly. One of the RA’s responsibilities is to propose New Business Items, which are messages of concern from the hoi-polloi to the NEA aristocracy. This year’s NBIs dealt heavily with the education reform issues that the union crowd is clearly (and understandably) most threatened by.

For example, NBI 33 says,” NEA will establish and articulate a position against the privatization of the American public school system.” (In other words, we are threatened by any kind of school choice system and will fight to the death to prevent this from happening on a grand scale.)

NBI 37 says, “NEA will investigate and inform its members about the anti-public education agenda behind the ill-informed intrusion of billionaires on education.” (Be careful, Bill Gates, you are not welcome into the world we now control.)

NBI 76 says, “NEA will facilitate access to empirical research and reviewed and/or valid studies, for member use, on the NEA website to assist members in combating the concerted attacks on public education and public educators.” (Our butts are getting kicked by the reformers and we need to find some snappy rejoinders to counter their attacks.)

NBI 80 says, “The NEA Representative Assembly directs the NEA President to denounce blatant age discrimination occurring across the United States, as veteran educators are targeted for dismissal by school superintendents and administrators who, under the guise of “improvement plans”, often subject these educators to harassment-style management. The President may point out that all school employees over the age of 40 are protected under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and stress the countless contributions made to public education by veteran teachers.” (Don’t mess with our seniority system because we will attack you as “ageist” and use a federal law to stop you if necessary.)

But perhaps the most vitriolic of the NBIs was the one attacking reform-minded Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. New Business Item C starts with, “The NEA Representative Assembly directs the NEA President to communicate aggressively, forcefully, and immediately to President Barack Obama and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that NEA is appalled with Secretary Duncan’s practice of….” and goes on to list “let-me-count-the-ways-we-hate-you” items – 13 in all. Interestingly though, Duncan’s boss Barack Obama not only got by unscathed but was given the NEA presidential endorsement for 2012. The message to Obama would seem to be, “We have to tolerate you because we’d rather die than support a Republican. Now please show us some love and pay us back by canning that creep Duncan.”)

Interestingly, there was one out-of-character measure taken by the NEA. According to Mike Antonucci, the union “is no longer opposed to the use of merit pay or performance pay compensation systems.”

While this would appear to be a tectonic shift, it in all likelihood is not. As Antonucci points out, “Categorical opposition to something on the fringe of education policy is practical, but as such things become more mainstream over time, this becomes less and less feasible and costs the union in public credibility. NEA’s solution is to stop saying, ‘No, you can’t,’ and start saying, ‘Well, you can, as long as you can pass through the eye of the needle.’”

In other words, NEA is saying, “You see. We are really not obstructionists.” But course, when it comes time to nail down specifics, the union will do what it always does – aggressively block anything approaching meaningful reform. Yes, the devil is in the details. And the devil will do everything in its power to ensure that the details don’t do anything at all to disturb the moribund status quo.
Larry Sand began his teaching career in New York in 1971. Since 1984, he has taught elementary school as well as English, math, history and ESL in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he also served as a Title 1 Coordinator. Retired in 2009, he is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues – information teachers will often not get from their school districts or unions.

“CTEN” was formed in 2006 because a wide range of information from the more global concerns of education policy, education leadership, and education reform, to information having a more personal application, such as professional liability insurance, options of relationships to teachers’ unions, and the effect of unionism on teacher pay, comes to teachers from entities that have a specific agenda. Sand’s comments and op-eds have appeared in City Journal, Associated Press, Newsweek, Townhall Magazine, Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union Tribune, Los Angeles Daily News, San Jose Mercury News, Orange County Register and other publications. This past May, after his weekly blog proved to be very popular, he began writing a monthly article for City Journal, the Manhattan Institute’s policy publication. He has appeared on numerous broadcast news programs and talk radio shows in Southern California and nationally.

Sand has participated in panel discussions and events focusing on education reform efforts and the impact of teachers’ unions on public education. In March 2010, Sand participated in a debate hosted by the non-profit Intelligence Squared, an organization that regularly hosts Oxford-style debates, which was nationally broadcast on Bloomberg TV and NPR, as well as covered by Newsweek. Sand and his teammates – Terry Moe of the Hoover Institution and former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, opposed the proposition – Don’t Blame Teachers Unions For Our Failing Schools. The pro-union team included Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. In August 2010, he was on a panel at the Where’s the Outrage? Conference in San Francisco, where he spoke about how charter school operators can best deal with teachers’ unions. This past January he was on panels in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Mateo in support of National School Choice week. Additionally, CTEN has hosted two informational events this year – one addressing the secret agenda that is prevalent in many schools these days and the other concerning itself with California’s new Parent Trigger law. The latter event was covered by both the English and Spanish language press.

Sand has also worked with other organizations to present accurate information about the relationship between teachers and their unions, most recently assisting in the production of a video for the Center for Union Facts in which a group of teachers speak truthfully about the teachers’ unions. At this time, he is conferring with and being an advisor to education policy experts who are crafting major education reform legislation.

CTEN maintains an active and strong new media presence, reaching out to teachers and those interested in education reform across the USA, and around the world, with its popular Facebook page, whose members include teachers, writers, think tankers, and political activists. Since 2006, CTEN has experienced dramatic growth.

Copyright Publius Forum 2001