Do Unions Belong in the Fight Against Corporate School Reform?



In the fight for public education, the forces of standardization and privatization are running scared.


They’ve faced more pushback in the last few years – especially in the last few months – than in a decade.


The Opt Out movement increases exponentially every year. Teach for America is having trouble getting recruits. Pearson’s stock is plummeting. The NAACP and Black Lives Matter have both come out strongly against increasing charter schools.


So what’s a corporate education reformer to do?


Answer: Change the narrative.


They can’t control the facts, so instead they try to control the story being told about the facts.


It’s a classic propaganda technique. As Malcolm X put it:


“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”


Their story goes like this – yes, there is a battle going on over public education. But the two sides fighting aren’t who you think they are.


The fight for public schools isn’t between grassroots communities and well-funded AstroTurf organizations, they say. Despite the evidence of your eyes, the fight isn’t between charter school sycophants and standardized test companies, on the one hand, and parents, students and teachers on the other.


No. It’s actually between people who really care about children and those nasty, yucky unions.


It’s nonsense, of course. Pure spin.


They want you to believe that the corporate vultures preying on our public schools are really just misunderstood philanthropists. And those demanding a fair shake for their own children and communities are really just paid shills from a monolithic and uncaring bureaucracy.


In essence, they want you to believe two things:


1) Despite profiting off the system and zero evidence supporting the efficacy of corporate school policies, they’re motivated purely by empathy.


2) Unions are evil by definition and they pervert everything they touch.


I’m not going to bother with the first claim here. There is an inherent bias from those who wish to change the laws so they can more easily profit off of schools without actually helping students learn and in fact exist at the expense of that learning. If you can’t see through the propaganda wing of the Walmart corporation, the Broad Foundation and Big Daddy Bill Gates, you probably won’t be very receptive to anything else I have to say.


Instead I will focus on the second claim, because it is the more pernicious of the two.


Put simply, unions are not perfect, but they are not evil. In fact, they are essential to the health of public education.


Many progressives are upset with teachers unions because of the current Presidential election. Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primary election without what many would consider adequately polling rank and file members. For better or worse, the endorsements were top-down affairs reflecting the preference of union leaders.


That’s not how unions are supposed to work. And it’s having consequences for the way both members and non-members view teachers unions.


Critics infer from this that unions don’t represent membership. They are de facto arms of the waiting Clinton administration and the neoliberal agenda.


There may be some truth to this, but it does not represent the whole picture. Not nearly.


Unions are like any other democratic organization. The larger the association, the further from the grassroots the decision making body.


In the mammoth national unions, decisions are made by representatives most removed from our schools. They probably were teachers or support staff at some point in the past, but that may be ancient history. Now they are professional leaders and therefore at a remove from the grassroots.


By contrast, in our local chapters, leaders are most often working classroom teachers. Decisions are made by those still meeting students’ needs on a day-to-day basis. As such, they retain an authenticity and expertise that may be more cloudy in the large bureaucracies.


This isn’t to say the national unions are by definition unconcerned with the needs of teachers and students. I’m sure that most of the NEA and AFT leadership who decided to endorse Clinton did it because they honestly believe doing so will help public education. And – who knows – they may be right. But what they forgot in this case was the democratic process they were tasked with preserving. As such, they may have to pay a price for their hubris when their terms are up.


In most cases, the leaders of national teachers unions are at too much of a remove to see what is best for our schools. And they usually know that. It is up to the rank and file to tell them what to do, and that’s what happens every year at representative assemblies through various caucuses made up of work-a-day members. And if leaders overstep their authority it is members’ duty to hold them accountable at election time.


So even though the national organizations are most likely to go astray, they often don’t. Usually even these giants are trying to improve the situation in our public schools.


However, it can’t be denied that the most intense and passionate activism happens a bit closer to where the rubber hits the road. It’s those local chapters that are there everyday and make the most difference. They are the heart and soul of unionism.


So when corporate education reformers sneeringly deprecate their opponents as mere unions, they’re glossing over an important distinction. Opposition to privatization and standardization policies doesn’t come from the leadership of the NEA and AFT. It comes from the grassroots. This is not a top down initiative. It is bottom up.


This is how it’s always been. There is no political organization directing the fight to save public education. The Democrats certainly aren’t overly concerned with reigning in charter schools. It was grassroots Democrats – some of whom are also union members – who worked to rewrite the party platform to do so. The Clinton campaign is not directing anyone to opt out of standardized testing. However, voters are demanding that Clinton be receptive to their needs – and some of them are union members.


There is no great union conspiracy to fight these policies. It’s called public opinion, and it’s changing.


That’s what scares the standardizers and privatizers. They’ve had free run of the store for almost two decades and now the public is waking up.


They’re desperately trying to paint this as a union movement when it’s not. Unions are involved, but they aren’t alone. And moreover, their involvement is not necessarily an impediment.


The needs of the community and the needs of teachers are the same.


Both want excellent public schools.


Both want the best for our students.


Both want academic policies that will help students learn – not help corporations cash in.


And both groups want good teachers in the classroom – not bad ones!


The biggest lie to have resonated with the public is this notion that teachers unions are only concerned with shielding bad teachers from justice. This is demonstrably untrue.


Unions fight to make sure teachers get due process, but they also fight to make sure bad teachers are shown the door.


In fact, in districts with strong unions, MORE bad teachers are fired – not less, according to a new study by economics Prof. Eunice Han from the University of Utah.


The study entitled The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad Teachers concludes that when unions are strong and successfully bargain for higher salaries, they have an incentive to help ensure ineffective teachers don’t receive tenure. In short, it costs too much to keep bad teachers on staff. It is in the interests of the collective bargaining unit to ensure those unfit to teach move along.


Moreover, Han also concludes that strong unions actually help reduce the dropout rate. It just makes sense. When you treat people like the professionals they are, when you give them autonomy and respect, they’re free to concentrate more energy into their jobs than fighting to keep those jobs.


But unions stand in direct opposition to the efforts of corporate vultures trying to swoop in and profit off of public education. Teachers provide a valuable service to students. If your goal is to reduce the cost of that service no matter how much that reduces its value to students, you need a weak labor force. You need the ability to reduce salary so you can claim the savings as profit.


THAT’S why corporate education reformers hate teachers and their unions. We make it nearly impossible to swipe school budgets into their own pockets.


So do unions belong in the fight against corporate education reform?


Answer: Heck yeah! In fact, they are essential to it.


27 thoughts on “Do Unions Belong in the Fight Against Corporate School Reform?

  1. You’re right, of course. The big fight is to move unions toward representing sanity rather than endorsing the reformers and trying to appear open-minded to the public. It’s a battle we face every day, and one that will become even more pronounced now that we’ve won a few seats on the monolithic United Federation of Teachers, which controls NYSUT, which controls AFT.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. From the start most if not all billionaires and corporate CEOs have always hated and despised labor unions, because labor unions are democratic organizations that are there to represent the best interests of workers. If you are a worker and you are against labor unions, then your thinking is controlled by the corporate autocratic dictators called CEOs. In other words, Bill Gates, the Walmart Walton family, and the Koch brothers, for instance, are doing your thinking for you and they have you chained to their will.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As recently as 2014, the NEA fully endorsed NCLB, so much so that they invested heavily in creating Common Core curriculum and training teachers to follow the test – based education model. The union even skewed survey results to falsely indicate teacher support for the Gates/Broad/Walton/Exxon agenda, no doubt due to dependence on their grants.

    The NEA only reluctantly rejected corporate reforms after teachers vociferously resisted the manipulation of 2014 survey results showing overwhelmingly negative impacts on students.

    It is also false to characterize teacher unions as initiating the opt out movement. They long ignored it and even continue to accept grants from the sameinstigators of overtesting as before.

    Teacher unions must walk a fine line between representing member views while still keeping them in compliance with education laws and policies. Otherwise even Democratic administrations would engage in open warfare with unions.


  4. The link between corporate Ed reform and anti-Union billionaires posing as philanthropists is clear. We see the Waltons, Kochs and Broads leading the charge.

    What’s most awkward is how the heads of the AFT and NEA collaborate with reformers that are harming their members, not to mention students.

    Both the AFT and NEA signed on to TeachStrong, a top-down, back room retooling of the teaching profession done in conjunction with corporate reformers. The backlash was immediate.

    But for years, Randi Weingarten has been in meetings with Hillary Clinton advisors from CAP, including Neera Tanden and John Podesta.

    CAP is the biggest revolving door in DC, rewarding former education officials with lucrative private jobs and producing pro-reform astrotuf that gets planted in “news” media such as US News & World Report.

    When confronted by a grassroots mom, Randi defended Podesta, apparently oblivious to his support for corporate reform and anti-democratic fundraising. So Randi’s seat at the table seems designed to quiet, not represent teacher voices in acceptance of Ed reform.

    Also troubling is the connections between the NEA and NGP/VAN, the datamining and research unit of the DNC. They signed a 2014 contract hailed as a way of more efficiently identifying activist teachers to match them to upcoming events, but the tools also enable them to sort teachers by their political views. The DNC was caught rigging the primary, so it stands to reason the NEA’s custom NGP/VAN “tools” were designed to gerrymander Hillary’s endorsement. At the very least, there has been no transparency as to how the tools were used.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Remember in It’s A Wonderful Life, when on his wedding day, George sees the run at the Building & Loan and stops to open the doors to the customers. A man runs in and claims that Potter will give 50 cents on the dollar to anyone that will transfer their shares to the big bank that Potter owns. George urges the crowd to hold tight and that if Potter breaks the Building & Loan, there will never be a decent house for anyone to live in. They will live in Potter’s shacks with no running water or heat, they will never get a “loan” to purchase a car or house, they will be foreclosed upon if one can’t make a payment to Potter’s bank. George exclaims “Potter’s not selling! Potter’s BUYING!” That’s how I see these corporate reformers. They aren’t selling a better education, they are buying schools and stealing taxpayer dollars. They are only giving 50 cents for every tax dollar they collect. They are lying to the public in order to satisfy their own greed and need for control. It’s sinful and it needs to stop. We citizens, are NOT a game of Monopoly.


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