Today’s Washington Post front pager on some realignment among urban mayors, teachers unions, and ed reform is the kind of article (and situation) that a decade or 15 years ago just a few were saying was on the horizon. But still a long way to go. Politically the big problems that I see are twofold. First, this is a hard conversation for union leaders to have. For every sensible statement like Randi Weingarten’s in today’s article:
“We have made mistakes,” [AFT President Randi Weingarten] said. “You have to really focus to make sure you’re doing everything you can so that kids are first. Tenure, for example. Make sure tenure is about fairness and make sure it’s not a shield for incompetence.”
There is another example of her, or someone else, denying these issues and calling the whole thing a right-wing plot, “so called reformers” etc…That speaks to the challenge of moving large organizations along – especially in a contentious time. But, second, it also speaks to how polarized our national debate about education (and most things) is. There are very few places you can go and have a conversation that allows for the political space to acknowledge two things that are true today and fuel these politics. First the unions need to mend their ways and change some key policy positions. Second, there are people who just want to do unions in and for whom this isn’t fundamentally about policy.
Along the same lines, from today’s story there is this:
“We don’t want to have honest conversations about poverty and segregation and race and class, all those other sorts of ills,” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “Those are really tough issues. So this gives them an excuse to focus on something else.”
Her union fought Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to add 90 minutes to the school day in Chicago, which has the shortest school day of any major city. Emanuel, the former chief of staff to President Obama, got the Illinois legislature to pass a law that will allow him to impose a longer school day starting in September. It also makes it harder for the union to strike, among other things.
Karen Lewis’ statement here is hardly wrong, but it’s completely undermined by the very next paragraph, exactly the sort of political mousetraps the unions frequently walk into. Politically they’d be on much firmer ground and enjoy more support if that conversation was one of “yes, and” rather than “no, but.” Getting to “yes, and” is how to pick the political lock but very difficult in practice at any scale. Impossible, actually, if you don’t take Weingarten’s point above seriously and “make sure you’re doing everything you can so that kids are first…”