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Is It Time For Pro-Reform Democrats To Panic? No, But Reformers Need To Keep The Pressure On

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It’s been a nerve-rattling couple weeks for those of us who identify as pro-reform Democrats.

It all started with Arne Duncan’s surprise announcement that he was stepping down as Secretary of Education at the end of the year. As President Obama noted, “Arne’s done more to bring our educational system — sometimes kicking and screaming — into the 21st century more than anyone else.” Duncan’s willingness to push the nation’s public schools to improve, in spite of the political headwinds, made him a hero to reformers, and understandably, it’s hard to see him go.

The very next day, the National Education Association (NEA) announced it was endorsing Hillary Clinton for president, prompting U.S. News and others to speculate whether Clinton could end up being “the teachers unions’ savior.” And Richard Whitmire only added to reformers’ anxiety with his column in USA Today warning of an impending schism among Democrats over the direction of education policy after Obama.

But the kicker came on Wednesday with Michael Grunwald’s article in Politico reporting that the Democratic presidential candidates had decided to opt-out of Campbell Brown’s education forum in Iowa later this month. Brown, who has emerged as a vocal education reform advocate in recent years, is loathed by the teachers unions. She told Grunwald “that operatives from several campaigns told her privately that the unions had urged them to stay away.”

Campbell Brown was stood up by all of the Democratic Presidential Candidates.

Campbell Brown was snubbed by Democratic Presidential Candidates at the urging of the teachers unions.

The Reaction: Outrage, Maybe Some Soul-Searching

Not surprisingly, reform-oriented Dems [myself included: see below] reacted with outrage to the news that Democratic candidates caved to the demands of the teachers unions, especially when six Republican contenders managed to show up for Brown’s first education forum in New Hampshire back in August.

For example, Kevin Chavous, executive counsel for the American Federation for Children, told Grunwald that the candidates’ refusal to attend Brown’s education summit amounted to a betrayal of the party’s base: “[F]or the candidates to refuse even to discuss these issues, I think it’s insulting to the Democratic base of black and brown voters.” Over at Education Post, reform advocate Erika Sanzi echoed those sentiments, saying:

“Democrats have a proclivity for calling themselves the party of the people, the only ones who care about the “little guy.” Well, lots of “little guys” need them to step up on education and talk about how they will work to fix a public educational system that is not working for a huge percentage of America’s children and families.”

Kevin Chavous said the candidates’ refusal to attend Brown’s education summit amounted to a betrayal of the Democratic Party’s base.

Kevin Chavous said the candidates’ refusal to attend Brown’s education summit amounted to a betrayal of the Democratic Party’s base.

On the other hand, I can’t help but imagine that privately, many reformers were asking themselves: If the Democratic Candidates are willing to cave to the unions’ demands on Campbell Brown, what about accountability, charter schools, testing, etc.? Admittedly, it’s scary to envision the education policy pendulum swinging back in the other direction, aided by a Democrat in the White House sympathetic to the teachers unions. Is the candidates’ snub of Campbell Brown a harbinger of things to come?

Should Blue Reformers Be Worried? Not Yet.

To start, a disclaimer: I’m working from the assumption Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination. Yes, I know there are plenty of folks out there feeling the Bern these days, but unless Clinton becomes embroiled in a career-ending scandal in the next six months (and no, emails don’t qualify), it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Clinton fails to clinch the nomination.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I believe the candidates’ decision to skip Campbell Brown’s event most likely boils down to bad timing and political calculus by the Clinton campaign.

Let me explain: Clinton is naturally focused on locking in the Democratic nomination as quickly as possible so she can focus her firepower on the Republicans. As Politico noted earlier this summer, part of Clinton’s strategy for doing that is securing the endorsement of the AFL-CIO (and the substantial political organization and PAC money that comes with it) by first winning over the individual unions that comprise the federation. One of the biggest is the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which announced its endorsement of Clinton, amid some controversy, back in July.

Randi Weingarten took flak from some AFT members for pushing for an early endorsement of Hillary Clinton.

Randi Weingarten took flak from some AFT members for pushing for an early endorsement of Hillary Clinton.

Likewise, Clinton’s endorsement by the NEA, the nation’s largest teachers union and an organization that can also bring considerable money and manpower to support her presidential bid, further strengthens Clinton’s position as the Democratic frontrunner. However, as with AFT’s endorsement, there was an unusual amount of dissension among NEA’s state affiliates, as well the rank-and-file over the decision to back Clinton. As one Massachusetts union activist told Politico back in September, “Even if she says things that today sound supportive, she’s not going to be a steadfast friend of organized labor. We don’t know she’s going to be the ally that’s going to stand with our legislative agenda.”

With sizable factions in both NEA and AFT skeptical of Clinton’s commitment to their agenda, it’s likely Clinton’s campaign decided that attending Campbell Brown’s event would only deepen the divide over Hillary within the unions, and as a result, declined the invitation. With the frontrunner bowing out, the other major Democratic candidates – already trailing far behind Clinton in the polls – then followed suit.

Clinton has downplayed her reform positions, but hasn't come out against reform policies during the campaign.

Clinton has downplayed her reform positions, but hasn’t come out against reform policies during the campaign.

Thus, while the candidates’ decision to opt-out of Campbell Brown’s education forum is disappointing, it isn’t cause for pro-reform Democrats to panic. This is politics. We’ve seen Clinton downplay her reform positions to woo the teachers unions before, during her last presidential campaign in 2007. Moreover, Clinton’s comments on education during the current campaign have tended to focus on less controversial issues like raising teacher pay and increasing early education funding. What Clinton hasn’t done is take a stand against the education policies embraced by the Obama Administration over the past seven years.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to imagine Clinton, with her New Democrat pedigree and track record of support for reform policies, embracing the teachers unions’ prerogatives as president. Of course, that doesn’t mean reformers shouldn’t keep the pressure on Clinton and other Democratic leaders over the next several months, but we also shouldn’t read too much into recent events, either.

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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Explainer: Does AFT Really Have 1.7 Million Members? How The Union Uses Accounting Tricks To Inflate The Numbers

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On Friday, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) announced its membership had risen to over 1.7 million members, surpassing the 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to become the largest union in the AFL-CIO.

According to union officials, the milestone was reached last month when the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR), which represents the U.S. territory’s 40,000 teachers, voted to affiliate with AFT.

However, as Education Week pointed out, the pact concluded between AFT and AMPR comes with several caveats. To start, the agreement only establishes a three-year “trial affiliation,” after which the two unions will decide whether to extend their relationship. Plus, although AMPR teachers will be considered full AFT members during this trial period, they will initially pay $12/year in dues to the union – far less than members of AFT affiliates elsewhere.

AMPR got a good deal from AFT: all the benefits of membership at a fraction of the cost.

But AFT’s 1.7 million claim is dubious for a more fundamental reason: the union uses creative accounting when tallying its membership. For example, in AFT’s 2016 annual report to the U.S. Department of Labor, they claimed to have 1.54 million members in 31 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam, but a closer look reveals only 675,000 of those individuals were actual full dues-paying members. A significant portion of the rest belonged to a hodgepodge of special membership classes: one-half members (204,344), one-quarter members (93,047), one-eighth members (34,104), associate members (49,984), and laid-off/unpaid leave members (1,808).

Their count also included nearly 357,000 retiree members and approximately 128,000 members of affiliates – in Florida, Minnesota, Montana, New York, and North Dakota – that have merged with NEA.1

In short, as is often the case with AFT, there is a huge gap between their rhetoric and reality.


Read AFT’s 2016 DOL annual report:


  1. Note that these are self-reported numbers and therefore subject to AFT’s interpretation. In a piece in The 74 earlier this year, Mike Antonucci claimed, “more than 600,000 working AFT members belong to merged NEA/AFT local and state affiliates” in 2016. 
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Policy

Willful Blindness Official Pushing NYC's ATR Plan Has A History Of Giving A Pass to Bad Teachers

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The New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) is planning to move as many as 400 teachers out of the district’s Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) and into full-time classroom positions at schools this fall, regardless of whether those schools want to hire them.

Principals have had control over staffing at their schools since 2005, when the district officially adopted “mutual consent” hiring. That shift resulted in the creation of the Absent Teacher Reserve, which is comprised of teachers who were forced out of their jobs or lost them due to school closures, but have not found new positions.

UFT president Mike Mulgrew, Mayor Bill deBlasio & Chancellor Carmen Fariña at a press conference in 2014.

Thanks to NYCDOE’s contract with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), individuals in the ATR pool continue to receive full salary and benefits, even though nobody wants to hire them. According to data obtained by Chalkbeat, the district spent nearly $152 million last year to compensate ATR teachers.

District officials have been trying to shrink the size (and expense) of the ATR pool for years, leading some to wonder whether they would resort to forced placement to accomplish their goal. When New York City Council members posed that question directly to Chancellor Carmen Fariña in 2014, she emphatically stated: “There will be no forced placement of teachers.”

However, NYCDOE reneged on that promise last month when it was announced that principals will have until mid-October to fill vacancies at their schools, after which the district will place teachers from the ATR pool into any remaining openings.

The new policy has gotten an icy reception from principals and parent advocacy groups, who say the district is simply putting bad teachers back into classrooms. As evidence, they point to NYCDOE figures showing that a third of the teachers in the ATR pool ended up there due to legal or disciplinary problems and half have been there for two or more years.

“There is not one parent in New York City who would willingly accept one of these ATRs into their child’s classroom,” StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis said in a blog post on the ATR plan. “It is unconscionable to put the worst teachers into the classrooms of the neediest students.”

NYCDOE’s Absent Teacher Reserve by the numbers.

In an effort to allay those concerns, NYCDOE issued a statement noting that “DOE has discretion on which educators in the ATR pool are appropriate for long-term placement and may choose not to assign educators who have been disciplined in the past.” Nevertheless, the department has not explicitly ruled out the possibility that teachers with disciplinary records could be used to fill vacancies.

That fact is especially troubling when one considers that Randy Asher, the NYCDOE administrator overseeing the Absent Teacher Reserve plan, was accused of letting bad teachers run amok in his previous role as principal of Brooklyn Technical High School.

Randy Asher, who formerly served as principal of Brooklyn Tech High School, now oversees the Absent Teacher Reserve for NYCDOE.

Asher served as principal of Brooklyn Tech for nearly eleven years before assuming his current role in January. During that time, the elite public high school was racked by a series of sex scandals involving faculty members, including the widely-publicized case of Sean Shaynak, a Brooklyn Tech math teacher who victimized seven female students.

According to a lawsuit filed by the victims, Asher and his fellow Brooklyn Tech administrators knew about Shaynak’s sexually suggestive antics (such as the time he showed up to a school dance wearing a skimpy schoolgirl’s uniform), but did nothing to address them. For his part, Asher claimed he was unaware of Shaynak’s devious behavior, but was “horrified and disgusted at the allegations.”

NYCDOE eventually settled the victims’ lawsuit for $450,000 and Shaynak was sentenced to five years in prison.

Although Asher claimed he was unaware of Shaynak’s sexually inappropriate behavior, photos of Shaynak in drag appeared in the school’s yearbook.

In light of Asher’s history, it’s hard to see how the public can trust that officials will use their discretion to keep the least desirable ATR teachers out of the classroom. That’s why parents and community members should fight to prevent NYCDOE from implementing its forced placement plan and call on city leaders to solve the district’s ATR problem by demanding a phase-out in contract negotiations with UFT next year.

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