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President Obama, Michelle Bachman, and a Teacher Unionist walk into a bar

Professor Alan Singer has written the thoughtful and honest pro-union piece I’ve been waiting to see for a long time. In doing so he breaks one major rule, which is that you never call out your own people when they’re walk does not match their talk. It’s forbidden.

This is a tough one. Believe me, I understand. For instance, as a black man I’m not allowed by the new black code to admit when President Obama is wrong. Even as he coddles every American interest group while seemingly being allergic to the words “black unemployment,” even as he tells us to straighten up, be good parents, and he isn’t the president of “black America,” he’s the president of the real America – still we assign any criticism of him to right wingers who look like stunt doubles from the Hills Have Eyes.

Drones and student loans be damned, he’s our man.

We’re not unique. Happens to the best of us. The right-wing can’t admit that Michelle Bachman embarrasses herself and cheapens her office by insinuating that President Obama is the love child of the Muslim Brotherhood and Malcolm X. On the other side, the left-wing can’t admit that school integration failed because even white liberals select white or mostly white schools for their own children.

Yes, this includes those who voted for Obama.

Then there are the teacher unionists. They seem unable to admit anything is wrong in their camp. Ever. The only thing wrong with them or their union are things that are outside of their own control. Just like black folks who believe any criticism of the President makes one a Republican, or right-wingers who believe that any criticism of Michelle Bachman makes one a communist, the teacher unionist are quick to call you a corporatist teacher bashing union buster if you suggest teachers should be evaluated, schools should come in many different forms (including non-unionized schools), and in fact poor children of color can and should achieve proficiency in school.

Instead of hearing valid concerns for the social stratification that comes from producing too many illiterate, innumerate people of color, they see a threat. It generates suspicion and hostility. The siege mentality blinds them to the possibility of any personal shortcomings and hardens them against any criticism. It’s all an “attack.” They have research studies to prove their own perfection and the inferiority of their accusers. They trade Dissent magazine articles written by college professors who write dispatches from the tower imploring them to stand firm against evil doers who might suggest change is needed. It all supports a story that any opponents they may have are part of an international conspiracy to harm children, destroy public education, and impoverish the world.

Of course the simpler story is that many of us might believe schools and teachers need to be much better at what they do. Not because they are bad people, but because what they’re doing isnt working. And, further, we have examples of it being done. In some schools children are learning at high levels without the use of magic or prayers for miracles.

Which is why professor Singer’s piece is important. He’s not a Koch-brother wolf in reformer’s sheep skins. There’s no reason to believe he has hidden motives. He’s actually is a strong believer in teacher unionism who does not equate that with blind allegiance. He makes that clear, saying “[w]hile I am a strong supporter of the right of workers in both the public and private sectors to organize labor unions, I am not an uncritical supporter. I am pro-public education, pro-teacher, pro-student, and pro-union, but while their interests often overlap, they do not always, and when they do not I favor the students.

Since he is that honest upfront, I should be too. I’m pro-black people, pro-my family, pro-student, and pro-liberation of oppressed peoples. Sometimes that overlaps with unionism, but often it does not. I grew up working class, in a working class community, where people were proud of what they did for a living. But I also grew up in a racial hierarchy of labor that defies any romance with notions of black-white labor solidarity, especially the whitewashed versions I hear from white middle-class college graduates who moved to the big city after suburban lives, and who read Freire and thought they suddenly understood my condition better than I do. I come from a practical people who were proud and often practically broke. Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining because I’ll crap on your thesis and remind you that is what it’s worth.

Which is what I bring to the conversation when we discuss teachers unions.

If you listen to teacher unionist you hear what you should expect. They care about children, so much so that they’ve dedicated their lives to serving children. They’re close to the kids so they see what children need and what children are not getting. They love what they do and want to be treated fairly because their work conditions are children’s learning environments.

I’m supportive of these premises and believe them when they talk this way. There is solidarity at that level of discussion.

The problem I have is that I’ve seen too much that conflicts with these beatitudes. I’ve seen bad teachers quietly shuttled from a rich schools because parents complained. They were sent to a poor schools where parent complaints were not valued, and this is routinely done with union blessing. Conversely, I’ve seen union leaders grieve the most outrageous cases of teacher misconduct, which includes ones student harassment and striking children in poorer schools.

I’ve also seen school staff freak out because the district was going to integrate them with a handful of black students, and teachers’ unions, knowing where their bread is buttered (with public opinion of the rich), support the schools rather than the students.

I’ve seen them ignore the inequitable redistribution of compensatory funding, the hollowing of academic programming in poor schools and the overstocking of programming in the whiter, more affluent schools, and so many more infractions on the whole educational justice front that it is mind boggling. It seems that they only find their own personal Jesus when pay or accountability are on the line. In four years on the Minneapolis School Board there were a number of things the teachers’ union could – and should – have protested on behalf of students and a just system of public education, but the only thing that made them put on matching t-shirts and crowd our boardroom was pay or job losses.

I understand politics. We are political people and education is a political enterprise. Teachers’ union leaders have learned to tie their bread-and-butter issues to the needs of children as a tactic rather than a reality. They talk a big game about educational justice while ignore injustice all day, everyday. Justice isn’t their job. Jobs is their job. They can’t be faulted for selling out in the end for small pay raises and a defense of their unionist position within the management/union power continuum. That’s why they exist.

We can see that as a reality for professional unions, and also for the celebrated urban activist Chicago Teachers Union who raised their celebrity by taking members to strike, only to cave for dollars, cents, and a deferment of accountability by way of teacher evaluations.

Mr. Singer points out how the state CTU agenda failed in the end, mostly because the real agenda for increased pay was achieved.

In Chicago, teachers went out on strike in September 2012 with a list of demands that included smaller class sizes, an elected school board, support for children exposed to violence and poverty, and more social workers, counselors, audio/visual and hearing technicians and school nurses. But in the end, the union settled for a three-year contract that included pay increases and a new evaluation system. A year later, the Chicago public school system, faced with a $1 billion deficit, closed 50 schools forcing thousands of students to travel to different schools in unfamiliar and sometimes unwelcoming neighborhoods. It was the largest school closing in United States history.

Consider all of their histrionics and public theater created by marketing people inside their supposedly grassroots union, and the illusion of a cathartic battle between forces attempting to end public education and those attempting to save it. In the end the battle was really about money and resistance to being evaluated as teachers. All of the talk about the needs of children, complete rubbish. And even with the complete failure of their strike gullible teacher unionists are so uncritical of Chicago’s renewed industrial unionism that some are importing the CTU as consultants. It’s even here in Minnesota where teachers’ unions are desperate to shed a Mary Poppins image in favor of the dicey and facile Chicago unionist porn.

What they will latch on to most is messaging and the brush that paints the world in corporate green and community red. Their convenient labeling of people as corporate reformers if then come within ten feet of Bill Gates’ money or attempt to open new schools or look for improvements in teacher quality ring hollow. Mostly because they themselves are guilty of the very crimes the accuse other of committing.

Mr. Singer goes right there too.

Both the AFT and the NEA will also have difficulty convincing anyone they are serious about educational reform or worker rights when both organizations take millions of dollars from groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to champion the Gates school agenda. Between 2009 and 2013, the AFT accepted $11.3 million and the NEA over $7 million to promote common core standards and teacher assessment.

Corporate reform. Privatization. The end of public schools as a public good? How can we take those teacher unionist claims seriously when they accept money from Gates’, have started (and ruined) their own charter school in New York, have become charter school authorizers in Minneapolis, and benefit from a ton of corporate cash that has nothing to do with “reform”?

That sounds a lot like the pot calling the pot a pot.

And, what do we make of the fact that as teacher unions paint corporations as greedy and suspicious entities that threaten democracy, and at the same time the unions themselves look much like corporations did 40 years ago.

Whatever its benefit or lack of benefit for union members and their students, this system has worked well for union leaders. The Unity Caucus, a political party within the union, has controlled most union offices since the early 1960s. National AFT President Randi Weingarten earns over $400,000 a year with an expense account that brings her remuneration to almost $500,000. New York City local President earns about $250,000 a year with an even more generous expense account. National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel earns over $360,000. In 2011, his salary, stipends, and other paid expenses were $460,060.

It should be noted that those salaries for Weingarten and Roekel make them members of America’s 1%. That’s ridiculous and I shouldn’t be the one saying it. Dues paying members should be the ones saying it. Why rail on telecom CEO’s for the pay distance between them and line workers, but ignore Randi Weingarten? It’s hard to rage against the machine when you one of its components. You cannot serve God and Mammon.

Though I’m fond of Mr. Singer’s critique of his union leadership, it’s not without reservation. Sure, it’s refreshing to see anyone within the teacher camp take off the Teflon body suit for 5 minutes and admit that much of the unionist educational justice sloganeering deserves serious questioning and quite possibly an intellectual enema. Still, he arrives at a different place than I do.

Here’s what he’s shooting for….

The kind of action I am calling for by teachers and their unions means developing a level of what used to be called working-class consciousness. In the post-Occupy Wall Street era it means supporting the 99 percent, even if the 1 percent offer you a sweetheart deal if you are willing to ally with them against other working people. It means recognizing the necessary relationship of teachers to the public and to parents. It means we rise together or we do not rise at all. It means the teachers’ unions can compromise on their own wages and hours, but not on their commitment to students and their families. In Chicago it would have meant keeping community schools from being closed for budgetary reasons was more important than a small wage increase.

While I get the whole class warfare ideology, I’m looking for something a little more practical from teacher leaders, something black people can actually use.

First, how about a commitment to teaching as measured by student learning. I’m happy that teachers care so much about us having wrap around services and food and housing and all that, but I don’t call a plumber when I have a toothache. Teachers need to focus on teaching, and when no one in their classrooms are learning it doesn’t help us for them to focus on political science debates rather than pedagogical revolution and new practices.

Second, how about a little humility. Teachers are not the experts on my children. At very best they are students of teaching my children. While I appreciate their pride in vocation it’s misaligned with their results. We can argue about the reasons behind that problem. You can say my community is deficient in so many ways that teachers can’t possibly be held accountable for what takes place for the 12 years of our lives that we’re in public schools without becoming literate or numerate. Fine. But then let’s make a deal that teacher unionists keep their pie holes covered when we find other options and other teachers (for instance, a charter school or private school).

Third, let’s dispense with the solidarity crap. In most urban districts the social and economic poles between the teachers and the students they’re paid to teach is light years apart. In every one of those districts middle-class careerists are living off of black and brown Average Daily Attendance. That’s how urban teachers make their mortgage payments and pay for their own children to live far from the students they teach.

Think about it: 60% of Minneapolis Public Schools teachers live in the suburbs, which might as well be Mars to the 65% of poor students that fill MPS schools. The ones that live in the city have no school aged children. Those that do avoid racially and economically isolated schools by using staff privilege to shelter their kids in magnet schools that are demographically unlike the rest of the district. We are not really in this together. You’ve got they have their mortgages and car payments, and we have our kids. The interests of the two are not always in sync.

Finally, until teacher unionists have reflect about the innumerable inequities that take place in the district schools, which they hold up as being the American ideal, the should know they lose credibility. They can’t cover that with a social justice t-shirt. Equating social justice with a right to a job helps no on. Ignoring the beam in your own district’s eye, while overexposing the speck in the eye of competitors is just plain shady. Going breathless about segregation, student creaming, drill-n-kill instruction, and student pushouts in charter schools is pure self-interest talking so long as you fail to acknowledge that all of those things happen on a much larger scale in district schools.

They know it to be true, but they are mum.

District schools are segregated by unjust residency enrollment practices and flight by white parents. The most tony schools in the district cream students through enrollment boundaries, the removal of programming to serve needy students, and resistance to intra-district integration programs.

And student pushouts were invented and perfected by traditional school districts, which is why you have alternative learning centers (and some charter schools) as dumping grounds for unwanted students.

When they are ready to challenge their own system, the one that pays them, it will be the beginning of a real discussion.

While I disagree with some of Mr. Singer’s conclusions, at least he seems willing to be an honest contributor to the debate.

I wish we all could get their about Obama, Bachman, and teacher unionism in the 21st century.

Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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Short note about Network of Public Education’s (NOPE) focus on education fraud

My friends at NOPE need to broaden their scope of fraud reveals.

My friends at the Network of Public Education (NOPE) have an ongoing series under the hashtag #AnotherDayAnotherCharterSchool that aims to keep your eyes trained on the supposed never-ending abuses and fraud case in charter schools.

I applaud their commitment to public integrity and I share their vigilance in rooting out grift in public systems. Yet, their myopic focus on a small subset of public schools, in this case charters, is suspicious.

Why not expose all fraud, especially in the bigger system?

Well, you’ll have to ask them. They’ve mostly blocked me on twitter for asking such questions.

I guess their unionist funders and the privileged parents they cater to in America’s suburban hoarding schools want a clean message. Traditional schools with union teachers that work with privileged parents to rig the system in favor of white, middle-class, pampered children, well, that’s good.

Schools built for, by, or in favor of children so unfortunate as not to have suburban, white, progressive, college-educated families capable of obtaining mortgages for houses near the best hoarding schools, well, you know the drill, they must be stopped.

Thus, the campaign to turn public opinion against the most popular competitor to sputtering state-run schools that employ more people than they educate, and drown in so much pension debt that they can ill-afford parents choosing anything other than district failure farms.

In the interest of truth I should tell you that fraud in public education is indeed every bit the problem that NOPE says it is, but it’s much broader than they admit.

I’ve offered examples before, but here’s another from today’s reading list. In this article on lax oversight of millions of dollars of expenditures in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

a KDKA investigation has found that the Pittsburgh Public Schools have issued no less than 650 of these cards to teachers and staff, who are racking up millions of dollars of purchases every year.


And while the cards are not supposed to be used for personal purchases, Controller Michael Lamb says it’s a system of loose oversight and controls that IS based mainly on trust.


“When you have that many cards, you lose control,” Lamb said. “And when the proper procedures aren’t in place, you create the opportunity for fraud. And that’s what you have in the school district right now.”
KDKA filed a right-to-know request for purchases made over the last three years and the results were eye-popping.


Last year alone, teachers and staff rang up a total of $3,254,000 in p-card purchases, with some putting upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 on their individual cards.


The summaries obtained by KDKA show purchases from Amazon, Sam’s Club, Staples and Giant Eagle.


And while employees are supposed to submit receipts and the stated reason for each purchase, controller office audits have found that it is hard to tell if all or most of those purchases are legitimate.

But at Faison School, for example, the controller’s office found no p-card reports for half of the 12 months audited and missing documentation for dozens of the purchases that were listed.


And KDKA’s review found questionable expenditures, as well.
Records show that teachers and staff at Oliver Academy used cards on a weekly and bi-weekly basis at both Wiseguys Pizza and Kuhn’s supermarket — raising the question of whether they were using the cards for their own lunches and groceries.

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Fuller to charter advocates: You’re in a fight, don’t run home to Mama!

Dr. Howard Fuller has been on the vanguard of the fight for educational options, and today he has a message for education advocates: fight for your lives!

Charter schools came to the education game as a bipartisan plan to force a “bold departure” from the failure trap that caught too many students in traditional public schools.

Creating alternatives to assigned district schools for families that wanted them was picking a fight with the educational establishment that lives or dies on the student headcount that drives per pupil revenue. Now, after years of losing market share, the empire is striking back with organized moves to establish moratoriums on charter growth, forge attacks on the the integrity of charter supporters, and calcifying public narratives about the supposed negative impacts of charters on public education.

So what do reform advocates do when the opponent finally hits back (hard) and our cherished reforms take a public whooping like they stole something?

According to lifelong freedom fighter Dr. Howard Fuller we firm our spines and fight like we mean it. That’s what he told attendees at a recent conference for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

“You can’t go running home to your mama,” he says. “There are people out there who don’t care that you all have created good schools. They don’t care that you are going to teach computer science. They don’t care.”

His message comes at a time when weary charter school supporters are feeling drained from constant attacks, and many are vacillating between wanting to stand their ground and wanting to accommodate anti-charter organizers by finding fleeting common ground.

“They want you to not exist,” Fuller said of the organized opponents of charter schools.

See his powerful speech below.

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It’s time to admit Diane Ravitch’s troubled crusade derails honest debate about public education

The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress.

I should start adding a qualifier when I say the former scholar and historian Diane Ravitch is the Ann Coulter of education commentary.

In fairness, Coulter has better manners and makes more attempts to employ logic as she “owns” the libs with verbal Jujitsu.

Ravitch, by contrast, has fallen irreparably into polemics so much that her daily blogs put her in league with Alex Jones’ made-for-YouTube Info Wars.

Along those lines, her blog-fart today ties “the charter industry” to the “infamous pedophile and “super-rich” Jeffrey Epstein.

“In 2013, his foundation issued a press release announcing that he looked forward to the dominance of charter schools in Washington, D.C. and predicted that they would succeed because they were unregulated,” she crows.

Then she offers crude analysis of why people like Epstein would want to privatize schools in D.C.:

People often ask me, “Why do the super-rich cluster to the cause of privatization?” The Answer is not simple because many different motives are at work. Some see giving to charters as a charitable endeavor, and their friends assure them that they are “giving back,” helping poor children escape poverty. Others want to impress their friends in their social strata, their colleagues in the world of high finance. Being a supporter of charter schools is like belonging to the right clubs, going to the right parties, sharing a cause with other very rich people.

If you are reading this you probably know that Ravitch was once a charter school supporter, and that makes it fair to ask which camp of nincompoops she fell into?

Did she see charters as a “charitable endeavor,” or was charter support her attempt to “impress [her] friends in [her] social strata, [and her] colleagues in the world of high finance.”

Only she can say, but as an established scholar of education history (and a player in policy) it’s doubtful her support was so in want of a factual basis.

During testimony to Congress conservative William Bennett gave decades ago he invoked Ravitch as a bipartisan voice for school choice.

Regarding the school reforms that were advancing in Chicago under Mayor Daley and Paul Vallas Bennett declared “[t]he empirical evidence, now widely available, is irrefutable: Not only are many of our public-schools not getting better, they are getting worse. American students finish in the bottom half, and often near the bottom, in comparison to students from other industrialized nations.”

Then, after promoting the benefits of charter schools, he asked lawmakers to “follow my friend Diane Ravitch’s prescript” to:

…make Title I into a “portable entitlement” that would aid all poor kids regardless of what school they attend. This is the one way to assure that every single Title I child will receive Title I services at the school they currently attend. This is also the best way to assure accountability. If a parent is not satisfied with the Title I services they are getting, they can take their Title I dollars with them to the school or provider of choice; power to the parents, and not bureaucrats, in other words.

Was Ravitch’s support for school choice back then the result of suspicious philanthropy, or glossy marketing to mindless parents, or, more logically,  the result of her considerable scholarship by that point in her life?

Again, only she can say.

In the spring of 1997 she praised then-New York Pataki’s proposed charter school policies that allowed groups other than local boards to grant charters, allowed for an un-capped number of charters to open, and allowed these schools to hire teachers who weren’t state certified.

Why?

In supporting Pataki’s push she said:

It’s impossible to know whether a law permitting charter schools will emerge from this session of the Legislature; the opposition of the teachers’ union, which is the most powerful voice in Albany on education issues, is certainly not encouraging. This is unfortunate, for a large and vital network of charter schools in New York would offer hope to educators, parents, and students in troubled school districts and would promote higher academic standards for all the state’s public schools.

Why would she support such craven policies of such anti-democratic that today she maligns as wealthy pedophiles and privatizers? Projection much?

Forget that teachers’ unions – the ones Ravitch herself once admitted were the “most powerful voices in education” – today block legislation making it a crime for teachers to sexualize students, defeat resolutions that called for them to re-dedicate their profession to student achievement, and pay retail civil rights organizations to defeat the voices of their grassroots members.

Here’s the real kick to the taco, when Lamar Alexander pitched the idea that every D.C. school should be converted to a charter (in 1997, six years before Epstein arrived at the same conclusion) he ascribed this definition of charter schools to his friend Diane Ravitch:

Think of a charter school as a public school district with only one school. It receives public funds, agrees to meet clear academic standards and accepts all students who apply. Unlike existing public schools, it has a contract that can be revoked if the school fails to make good on its commitments.

If she were at all generous she would at very least admit the decency of long-term charter backers who hold valid theories for why charters improve the educational landscape. The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress. The tensions between autonomy and regulation, local control and federal oversight, and public education as an institution or as a service to American learners could still be exercised by smart people truly seeking solutions to the inarguable problems of public schooling.

But not if we follow the zero-sum and divisive lead of Ravitch whose enemy-imaging toward those who differ on policy has escalated so far she no longer sees them as human. We’ll predictably end up in her abyss of false binaries, intellectual excursions, and forlorn paralysis.

Given Ms. Ravitch’s clever wits and stockpile of information I can’t imagine she leads us to that confused, somber place by accident. There is no better way to ensure the education establishment’s special interests – those who are among Ravitch’s most ardent disciples – are never brought to account than to ignore the brisk but level Ravitch of yesteryear and listen to the caustic and battled one before us now.

 

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