Fourteen years ago, I moved to New Orleans to teach biology, chemistry, and environmental science at John McDonogh Senior High School. One of the first things I did when I arrived in town was head over to the old United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) headquarters to join the union. Why? Because I was bright-eyed 22 year-old who naively believed that teachers unions actually practice what they preach.
While the union claimed it stood up for the rank-and-file, fought on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised, and empowered teachers to do what’s best for children, I quickly discovered how far removed their rhetoric was from reality. UTNO’s 77-page collective bargaining agreement with the Orleans Parish School Board was a marvel of contractual engineering: its language expertly crafted to minimize the amount of time worked, maximize the amount of sick/personal/vacation time accumulated, and all but preclude the possibility of dismissal.
Thanks to the 20 sick days (out of a 180-day school year) that UTNO gave its members, teacher absenteeism was a major problem across the district. The union’s seniority rules meant that principals had virtually no say over who was picked to fill vacancies at their schools. And, while UTNO leaders incessantly preached about “solidarity,” they did little more than gripe about the deplorable conditions that teachers faced in schools.
Worst of all, rather than empowering educators, the collective bargaining agreement engendered a corrosive mindset in which the district’s myriad challenges were met, not with the question, “What can I do to help my students succeed?” but, “Why should I do anything more than the contract requires?”
When Hurricane Katrina essentially washed UTNO away, the city was given a clean slate to rebuild our education system without the union’s interference. As a result, schools were allowed to focus on the needs of students and families, rather than the archaic rules and restrictions of a union contract.
Now, UTNO and its overseers at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are trying to force their way back into schools in the Crescent City, as seen in the recent announcements of organizing drives at Lusher Charter School and International High School of New Orleans.
My message to educators is this: Don’t buy the sales pitch. A vote for the union is a vote against your own self-interests because you will be directly supporting an organization that opposes charter schools and denies the progress New Orleans schools have made since Hurricane Katrina.
I. AFT Fights Against Charter Schools
AFT leaders speak out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to charter schools. In one breath, they will emphatically state they are not opposed to charters, while in the other, they will deride charter schools and their supporters, who AFT president Randi Weingarten recently claimed were part of “a coordinated national effort to decimate public schools.”
While the union’s statements on charter schools might be ambiguous, their behavior is not. AFT spends millions of dollars every year in states across the country trying to block the expansion of charter schools, limit their autonomy, and otherwise hinder their ability to operate.1
In Massachusetts, for example, the American Federation of Teachers has spent the past few months campaigning against Governor Charlie Baker’s proposal to raise the state’s charter school cap. Although polls indicated that a majority of voters supported the measure, the union used its influence in the legislature to defeat the bill.
During the campaign, Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union (AFT Local 66), bluntly explained why his organization was fighting to maintain the cap in an editorial for Boston Public Radio station, WBUR:
“I agree that we need to provide more educational options to low-income students, but charter schools are not the way to do this. In fact, their growth is a step toward privatizing public education. Charter schools take opportunities away from the other public schools by cherry-picking the students who come through their doors.”
— AFT (@AFTunion) May 4, 2016
Across the country in California, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (AFT local 1021) is in the midst of an all-out war against charter schools. Over the past year, the union waged an ugly, but ultimately unsuccessful organizing drive at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, L.A.’s largest charter network. In February, UTLA even increased members’ annual dues by nearly one-third (to approximately $1000/year) to pay for their anti-charter strategy, which includes targeting charter school supporters like the philanthropist Eli Broad.
At a protest outside the recently-opened Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles in September, UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl told the crowd:
“I challenge Eli Broad to a public debate on public education…Broad and his billionaire pals wreaked havoc on public education in New Orleans. His education ‘reform’ there resulted in massive inequities and civil rights violations for students. Segregation was reinforced and special education students were left behind. We do not intend to stand by and let him do the same thing in Los Angeles.”
But we need look no further than our own backyard to see evidence of AFT’s anti-charter efforts. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT), AFT’s state affiliate, supported nearly every anti-charter school bill considered by lawmakers during the current legislative session, just like they do every year.
LFT’s anti-charter credentials are so well established that a recent article in the Times-Picayune – “Teachers unions helped get John Bel Edwards elected. What have they gotten in return?” – noted that the union had little to show for their support of Edwards, since “most of the governor’s more aggressive proposals to rein in or restrict charters and the voucher program haven’t even been able to get out of committee.”
II. AFT Maligns NOLA’s Post-Katrina Reforms
There are plenty of reasons why AFT would feel threatened by the success of New Orleans’ post-Katrina school reforms.
First of all, it directly contradicts several of the teachers unions’ favorite talking points. It refutes their cynical insistence that schools can do little to raise student achievement in poor communities and it debunks their ludicrous claim that charter schools are destroying public education. Second, New Orleans has witnessed what is probably the most rapid improvement of any urban public school system in the United States and we did it without union involvement. Both of these factors help to explain why the American Federation of Teachers has spent the past ten years maligning the Big Easy’s reforms.
We cannot be experimenting w our students- New Orleans's charter experiment: A preview of the fight over education https://t.co/FKD20SlszD
— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) May 9, 2016
AFT began trashing New Orleans’ efforts to rebuild a better school system almost immediately after Hurricane Katrina. In November 2006, AFT, LFT and UTNO published a report entitled, “‘National Model’ Or Flawed Approach? The Post-Katrina New Orleans Public Schools,” in which they actually took a jab at Lusher. Stating that the actions taken by state and local education officials “suggests to black residents that the new New Orleans school system is redlining their neighborhoods,” the report points to Lusher’s expansion to the Fortier building as an example:
“This perception is also strengthened by OPSB’s decision in October 2005 to allow a second campus of Lusher Charter School to occupy the Alcee Fortier High School building. Fortier had previously served a student body that was overwhelmingly African-American. The new Lusher Charter School occupying Fortier’s building is a selective-admission school that is designed to serve the children of faculty and staff at Tulane and other universities in the city.”
Since that time, AFT has released a steady stream of statements calling into question our city’s progress, including a study that falsely claimed, “Evacuee students, who returned to New Orleans and attended RSD schools in 2009 (the schools in the state takeover following Hurricane Katrina), experienced no statistically significant post-Katrina achievement gain measured by value added.”
In 2014, the mouthpiece of the United Federation of Teachers in New York, the largest AFT local in the country, published an article entitled, “The destruction of New Orleans’ public school system” that claimed that the story of New Orleans’ reforms “is one not of triumph, but of pain and tragedy, in which the city’s devastation from Hurricane Katrina was exploited to enact a radical program of school privatization.”
AFT even took advantage of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to cast aspersions against our city. On August 27th of last year, AFT published a statement on its website, “The Truth About New Orleans schools after Katrina,” which stated:
“[P]oliticians and corporate interests are claiming success, but close inspection reveals a different story, a harsher reality. While billions of dollars are going into building new facilities and redesigning school organizations, much of educators’ proven expertise about teaching and learning has been abandoned.”
Moreover, Audra George, the senior AFT official who is overseeing the organizing drives at Lusher and International High School, has nothing nice to say about New Orleans reforms or its charter schools – just look at what she’s said about them in the past:
III. AFT is not an ally
As I’ve shown, AFT is not a friend of charter schools, particularly those in New Orleans. Not only does the union not respect the accomplishments of NOLA educators, they would just as soon be happy to see charter schools abolished. Teachers at Lusher, International High School, and others who may find the union’s promises appealing should ask themselves whether they want their dues going to an organization that has spent millions of dollars fighting against the things that make our public school system work.
At the end of the day, AFT is not an ally.
- I contributed to a recent piece published in The Seventy-Four which exposed an AFT front group targeting wealthy charter school supporters: “United Front: Teachers Unions Quietly Spend Millions on ‘Grassroots’ Groups.” ↩