Dear Randi Weingarten,
You do not know me, but we have crossed paths on Twitter and education blogging circles. In fact, I think you have kindly retweeted some of my writings to your followers on a few occasions. I am writing because I have been following your political actions for some time in this election cycle, and while I think I understand what is motivating a great deal, I am concerned that as the leader of the American Federation of Teachers’ 1.6 million members you have been too willing to accept a “seat at the table” with politicians and foundations, a seat that has come at the expense of the rank and file. I do not believe this has been your intention, but I also think that it is necessary to question whether or not politics as usual has broken down, whether or not having a seat at the table is worth the comprises necessary to get there. I respectfully suggest that this is one of those times.
Many of the bloggers and education activists I read have been very harsh towards you in their assessments. Those assessments are based upon what they see as a long series of actions demonstrating a willingness to play ball with so-called reformers and to negotiate for changes in matters like teacher assessment and compensation and the Common Core State Standards. Mercedes Schneider pulls few punches in this piece detailing cooperation with Eli Broad, the Gates Foundation, and other forces in education reform who have sought to weaken unions, pushed for unregulated charter schools, advocated evaluating teachers using standardized test scores based on the CCSS, and advocated to institute performance pay using those same measures. Blogger Jersey Jazzman wrote you an open letter in 2012 about the Newark contract, making predictions that have pretty much come true. I know other bloggers and activists who’ve openly pondered nefarious reasons for your willingness to cooperate with people and institutions that have been demonstrably disruptive forces in ways that have rarely been beneficial for schools.
I’d like to make it clear that I do not share that negative assessment.
There are two polar opposed views of how unions ought to deal with efforts like the current reform movements. The first, which is certainly familiar to many, is best described as following the maxim that if “you let the camel’s nose under the tent, the rest of the body will follow.” In this view, any concession given to reformers means that a constant wave of detrimental ideas will follow, so union leaders should fight tooth and nail to keep them from happening. It probably will not work 100%, and the public relations will be difficult to manage, but if reformers keep getting bloody noses, fewer of their ideas will come to fruition. The other perspective, perhaps more popular in the post-World War II period, believes that having a “seat at the table” is important and more valuable in the long term than constant brawling. In this view, trade offs have to be made so that policy can be guided into less harmful directions because policy makers only listen to insiders and policy will be made with or without your input. The stance is less viscerally satisfying, but if the seat at the table is genuine, there is potential to have actual impact without subjecting rank and file and their students to constant turmoil.
I will admit that I see the wisdom of the less confrontational stance. Policy will be made, and we live in an era when union power has been greatly diminished by loss of membership and political figures willing to attack unions. If the union leadership is fully shut out of the inside of the political process, then the people who will be left will be lobbyists representing corporate interests and a growing cadre of the super wealthy who have discovered that they enjoy bending politicians to their will far more than they enjoy endowing hospitals and art museums. In the absence of union leadership with any insider capacity, politicians and plutocrats will bend everything to their will without a voice representing the rank and file even within earshot. This is not a position of purity, but it promises to keep balance.
There’s just one problem with this perspective. It only is operable when the place offered at the table is genuine. If the owners of the table only plan to shoot you underneath it, then preserving your seat can no longer be a viable priority. I respectfully suggest that today is such a time, and that the only move that truly serves your members is to walk away from the table that is populated by people acting in bad faith.
The first evidence of this is the absurd and personal campaign against you by Richard Berman. As you know, Berman is a political consultant whose preferred tactics are so bottom feeding and vicious that an oil industry executive listening to him talk felt the need to expose him for type of operative that he is. Berman has spent most of the past year coordinating a direct assault on teacher unions generally and you specifically, relying on hyperbolic tone, misleading information, and a staggeringly personal content. I must note that you have been dignified, forceful, and inspiring in the responses I have seen to Berman’s attacks, but I also must note that there is a lesson in the mere existence of his campaign.
Berman works for corporate interests, and although he will not disclose his donors, it is not hard to guess the kinds of people behind him. After your cooperation with Eli Broad on some issues and after your personal efforts to support the standards side of the Common Core, it would be atrocious for his funding to be coming from Broad or Gates, but there is no lack of other corporate interests from the Walton Family Foundation to the Koch Brothers to the Rupert Murdoch to Michelle Rhee’s Students First who would be more than happy to take up the cause. And why would any of these people and foundations be eager to engage in such a puerile attack on you? Well, you’ve stepped out of line. You’ve warned reformers that their obsession with testing and evaluating teachers by tests have put the Common Core State Standards in trouble with teachers and parents. To me, this was overdue because Race to the Top had super glued testing the standards from the get go, but for your supposed friends in reform, this kind of talk about the obvious is a betrayal. Worse from their perspective? You have defended teachers and their union won workplace protections from the lawsuits seeking to strip them from all of our nation’s teachers, and you have been willing to criticize supporters of the suits in public.
I’ve heard and read your defenses of tenure. They have been eloquent. They have been factual. They have been passionate. And they must be unforgivable to the types of people who hire the likes of Berman. It is fairly obvious that he was hired to “soften you up” prior to the Vergara lawsuit ramping up, and he has been charged with keeping up his attacks as you’ve defended teachers since then. What’s the lesson here? You are only favored by corporate reformers and their political allies as long as you stay entirely within the ranks. Take a step out of line, and well, you are on billboards as the enemy of America’s children and subject to junior high pranking on social media.
More egregious, however, has been the steady stream of betrayals of teachers and schools by politicians who have been wooed by steady infusions of corporate cash and have participated in starving public schools of funds, forcing the CCSS, testing and test based evaluations into schools, and who have promoted charter school policies that concentrate high levels of disadvantaged students into the same district schools they have starved of funds. Worse, these betrayals have come from Democratic politicians who have traditionally enjoyed strong labor support, and who, in public, claim to be allies of school and labor. Republican Governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin have been incredibly hostile towards teachers and their unions, but they have also been forthright about their oppositional stance. Meanwhile governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut’s Dannel Malloy and mayors like Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, Newark’s Cory Booker (now U.S. Senator from New Jersey), and Kevin Johnson of Sacramento have pursued public school policies harmful to teachers and students — even if some of them go through the motions of courting traditionally Democratic Party constituencies.
Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has perhaps been the worst. Governor Cuomo has continued to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment to balance his budget on the back of our schools. Districts cannot make up the difference in lost school aid with local funds due to his property tax cap. Governor Cuomo plays favorites with charter school operations that further disadvantage local schools and then attacks those local schools and teachers for poor test performance. Governor Cuomo’s education commissioner went out of his way to set the cut scores on state exams so that only 30% of students would be rated as proficient. His record has been so damaging that the UFT took the extraordinary step of not making an endorsement in the 2014 gubernatorial election, and while many rank and file members would have preferred a stronger stance to endorse an opponent, it was an important step to publicly acknowledge that teachers in New York have no friend in the Governor’s Mansion.
It is because of these reasons that myself, and many others, were sorely disappointed by your tepid public response to Governor Cuomo’s latest outrage that he sees our system of free common schooling as a “public monopoly” that he wants to “break” and that he believes our state’s hard working teachers do not want to be evaluated. He signaled not only his plans to double down on the destructive path of privatizing and testing, but also his utter disregard for teachers and the public purposes of education itself. In response, you told reporters that his statements were most likely “campaign rhetoric” and that you had sent him a private letter explaining his errors. To call the governor’s statements “campaign rhetoric” is to suggest that he is not entirely sincere in those statements and has tailored them for a political purpose, but I have to ask what in this man’s record suggests that he does not fully believe everything he has said?
Your statement reminded me of segment on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show on October 31st. On it, Working Families Party co-chair Karen Scharff and actress and activist Cynthia Nixon made the case for people to vote on the W.F.P. line even as the Governor had appeared in the hour before them, implicitly insulting the Working Families Party in favor of his newly created Women’s Equality Party line on the ballot:
“We’ve formed every kind of fringe party for every kind of reason,” the governor said. “We have Democrat, Republican, Green, red, white, blue, working people, working short people, working tall people. We’ve never had a women’s party.”
Many observers believe that the Governor created the W.E.P. line for no other reason than to siphon off votes from the progressive W.F.P. and possibly lead them to lose their ballot line in the future, and they believe he did this because the party made him fight for his spot on their line. Karen Scharff and Cynthia Nixon made the case that if people voted on the W.F.P. line, they would remain a force in state politics and keep pressure on Governor Cuomo to be the “better Cuomo that we know is lurking inside…”
The thing is that I do not “know” that there is a “better Cuomo,” and I do not believe that anyone can make such a Cuomo show up. When he has stood for traditional Democratic Party issues they have been issues that carry almost no political risk in this state: gun control, abortion rights, and marriage equality. While those are significant, it is very clear that when it comes to fiscal policy and our public education system, he is taking his cues entirely from the corporate financiers of his campaigns. When a sitting governor takes 100s of 1000s of dollars from the backers of a single charter school chain, then manipulates circumstances to humiliate a mayor seeking funding and support for universal pre-K, and then enshrines forcing New York City to pay the rent for those schools right into the state budget — then we know full well that he has no intention of playing fair with our schools, our teachers, and our children.
I have seen you on Twitter stating that elections are “about choices,” and perhaps you believe that the Republican opponents to these Democratic Party privatizers are even worse. You might be right — in the short term. In the long term, however, it will be even worse if the Democratic Party continues its head first slide down the path of mass standardized testing, invalid teacher evaluations, mass teacher firing and school closings, selling off our educational commons to charter school corporations, and the breaking of one of the last unionized middle class professions in the country. A Republican candidate may be hostile to teacher unions as well, and may deny teachers and their representatives a seat at the reform table, but I have to ask how is that any worse than being invited to that table only to be betrayed again and again?
Elections are, indeed, about choices, and perhaps 2014 and forward is the time to choose better candidates and to actively oppose those who are eager to sell off our educational commons no matter their party and no matter how they will respond if they make into office over our opposition. The vote is one of the remaining democratic mechanisms that can still work in an age of dark money elections and politics. Influential billionaires may own politicians’ ears in between elections, but those same politicians have to get past the voters, and we need strong voices to roundly condemn those who have betrayed public education to forces that seek to profit from it instead of nurturing it for the benefit of all.
When the seat at the table is a farce, we still have the ballot box and the picket line. I urge you to consider what roles they have in the years ahead.
Daniel S. Katz, Ph.D.
Public School Graduate
Father of Two Public School Children
Addendum: After I published this piece, Randi Weingarten, after a day of travel, posted this piece on the AFT web page about the “difficult choices” facing New York voters. The statement insinuates that Ms. Weingarten will not be voting for sitting Governor Andrew Cuomo, and while she describes the problems with the Republican challenger Rob Astorino, she is very firm with the Democrat:
It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening in New York, especially after campaigning across the country for gubernatorial candidates who unequivocally support public education, respect teachers and will fight for the investment our schools need.
But in New York, the decision is painful. I am deeply disappointed and appalled by Gov. Cuomo’s recent statement that public education is a “monopoly” that needs to be busted up. (Frankly, it’s only hedge fund millionaires, right-wing privatizers and tea partiers who would use that terminology.) Public education is a public good and an anchor of democracy that is enshrined in our state constitution. Public education needs to be nurtured and reclaimed.
Ms. Weingarten concludes her statement by saying, “It’s well past time to fund our schools, care for our children, support our teachers, and stand up for workers and working families everywhere in our state.”
I wholeheartedly agree, and I sincerely hope that this signals a willingness to challenge Mr. Cuomo much more vigorously.