Fordham Unsheathed!

Justin Torres of the Fordham Foundation writes in the current Gadfly that Eduwonk is, “generally perspicacious, sometimes even wise”…with prose like that you know the knife is coming!

And it does! Torres basically argues that new unionism and teachers’ union reform efforts are a fraud and amount to nothing and that anyone hoping for anything progressive from organized labor, in this case Eduwonk, is basically a sucker. That’s an oversimplified summary, though not far off, you can read the whole thing here.

Labor’s (and the teachers’ unions) important historical role notwithstanding, there are still several problems with the case Torres makes.

First, he discounts the clout of SEIU’s Andy Stern in the labor movement. It’s in large part because Stern has the power to splinter the AFL-CIO that his case for change is attracting so much attention. And though private-sector labor has certainly seen better days, the AFL-CIO in general, or SEIU in particular, are not paper tigers. SEIU spent $52 million during the last presidential election (more than NEA and AFT combined) and about half of its members are public sector employees…Also, Torres ascribes status quo educational reform thinking to the “average public sector unionist.” What animal is that? Is this the same average unionist vote that went, according to exit polls in the last election, almost 40 percent for Republicans? Besides, if the NEA is as powerful as Torres says, why can’t they even bend the American Federation of Teachers, let alone private sector labor, to their will on things like No Child Left Behind?

Second, and equally divorced from today’s reality, he scolds Eduwonk for urging school reformers not to just lump unions together either rhetorically or in terms of policy and politics. Torres argues that everyone knows that when someone in education says union, they mean teachers’ union. But is this true? Most people who don’t earn their living in the field tune into these debates episodically, at best, are not well-versed in its lingo or assumptions, and are not ideologically monolithic. As a practical matter, some urban superintendents have survived precisely by splitting local teachers unions and other local unions in no small part because the latter worried about both school quality and the negative impression of unions that some teachers’ union demands create.

Finally, Torres’ entire case is pinned to the tired canard that vouchers = school reform. Thus, by this line of argument, if Andy Stern does not support vouchers, then he’s not really for reform. This is a ludicrous standard. (Torres’ worldview here is easy to discern, all the elected Democrats he praises as bold education reformers have one thing in common — all supported vouchers)

For starters, there are plenty of thoughtful school reform types who don’t support vouchers, plenty of the same that do, and plenty less thoughtful folks who do and don’t as well. Superficially, support or opposition is indicative of almost nothing. Besides, as even their thoughtful proponents acknowledge, vouchers are not a necessary predicate for progress, nor a sufficient reform on their own.

Moreover, this line of argument discounts other progress and hard won victories. When the local teachers’ union in Denver decides to experiment with performance-based pay, that’s progress. When Green Dot Public Schools, a LA-based non-profit charter school operator employs a modified version of the LA Unified School District teacher contract, that’s progress, too. Is all well? Of course not and even many folks inside the teachers’ unions argue that change is imperative. But change doesn’t happen overnight or in a linear fashion toward some preordained policy goal. And change certainly isn’t vouchers or nothing.

So, Torres is right that there is some “think-tank chin-tugging” going on. Unfortunately, it looks like it is happening at Fordham, a place that has, at times, been perspicacious itself.

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