NEA Wrong to Ignore DeVos

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To “Resist!” that which the Trump administration will attempt to do has become a rallying cry for all who disagree with his agenda (or the agenda of the puppet-masters who control him, depending on your view of Trump’s competence).  One of the most controversial of his appointments, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has been front and center in this spotlight, given her past history of favoring for-profit charter schools and educational vouchers which would allow parents to divert tax money from public to private/parochial schools.  So what is the best way to resist someone in charge of the federal approach to public education who will have significant influence in both funding and policy?  The two largest teacher unions—the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—have adopted different approaches, as explained in this New Republic article, but the NEA tactic is not the one which is in public education’s best interests.

No matter what happens, who’s in charge, what program’s being pushed, or which laws are proposed in Congress; kids will still keep going to schools.  Every day, they will show up, expecting to be educated (even if their attitudes occasionally suggest otherwise), and plop themselves down (eventually) into their seats as the bell rings to start the day.  And the teacher will do her all to make that educating process happen, 99.9999% of the time.  I taught for thirty-three years beginning in 1979, which is when the very first Education Secretary, Shirley M. Hufstedler appointed by President Jimmy Carter, took office.  And not once in all that time did I spend any significant time worrying about what the Secretary of Education wanted me to do.  It simply did not intrude upon my daily work life.  Sure, I was aware of what comments, for example, Arne Duncan (9th Education Secretary) or William Bennett (3rd) might make—Duncan (despite his weak record) always came across as reasonable while Bennett never failed to elicit anger—but never did I ever alter what I believed to be in the best interests of my kids because of what federal educational experts preached from Washington.  It makes me laugh that anyone would think good teachers would worry much or (God forbid!) alter their behavior because of what Betsy DeVos says.  She simply isn’t relevant to teachers’ worlds.

And that does provide some justification for the NEA’s avowed intent to shun DeVos as not worthy to meet with or talk to, as explained in the above article. NEA president Lily Eskelsen García has stated, “There will be no relationship with Betsy DeVos.”  As a past NEA member and union activist, I completely understand that reaction to the problems that DeVos brings to her position.  DeVos has been strongly opposed to teacher unions and worked against both teacher rights and interests.  But that has been true of many educational leaders at the local, state, and federal level over the years; regardless of who’s in charge, it is the job of elected union representatives to continue communication in order to push for that which is good for their members.  And the AFT, in contrast, has agreed to meet with DeVos, and its president, Randi Weingarten, has already had a brief conversation with the Education Secretary.

Don’t get me wrong:  Given the chasm which exists between how DeVos views public education compared to almost every public education teacher, it is unlikely that either García or Weingarten will be able to make progress softening or changing her positions on basic educational policy.  In the best case scenarios, it’s possible to envision a frosty, agree-to-disagree kind of relationship.  But the stakes are significant enough that the unions need to remain engaged.  Then too, they’ve got plenty of resources and opportunities to try to modify, fight, and/or protest against Republican measures.  There will be many talking points and chances to set the public straight about what DeVos is trying to do.  But one aspect of DeVos’s position trumps all these things when it comes to doing what’s best for public education and a key reason the unions need to maintain some sort of contact.

And that’s something which matters to every school in the country:  Money.  From teacher salaries (always my top priority in my role as teacher union representative) to supplies to facility maintenance, up-grading, and construction to getting quality support staff, to instituting new programs/technologies, every dollar counts.  And that’s where teachers’ unions come in.  At the local level (where I was active for most of my career), the unions negotiate contracts, file grievances, and generally advocate for the teachers whom the leaders (who are also teachers in that district) represent.  The state organizations sometimes provide assistance with local issues that might overwhelm a small union, especially things requiring legal help, but devote most of their time to working with and lobbying state legislatures.  And the national unions, like the NEA and AFT, receive members’ dues to help advance educational issues at the federal level.  In the end, the most tangible issue affecting teachers’ lives and their ability to do their jobs effectively relates to funding, to money.  And the federal government has some.

Granted, the amount of Washington dollars which end up in any one school district varies by a lot.  In the district where I worked—Hinsdale High School Township District 86—we got a very small percentage of funding from the federal government—a percent or two of the total budget. You can contrast that with the 12% Chicago Public Schools expects to receive this fiscal year.  And that difference might be one reason AFT leaders automatically show a greater willingness to work with DeVos than the NEA:  AFT locals tend to be larger, more urban, and more strapped for cash than the more suburbanized, wealthier, smaller locals which make up the bulk of the NEA’s power base.  Chicago Public Schools?  An AFT local.  Naperville Community Unit School District 204, Butler School District 53, or Community High School District 99?  All part of the NEA.  NEA’s locals are more able to shun federal money should they so decide, whereas large city school systems operate at huge deficits regularly.  Losing federal money can mean larger class sizes, school closings, and less qualified teachers.  But any loss of funding can negatively impact any school system.

And that doesn’t mean union leaders need to compromise their ideals or goals just to curry favor with DeVos in order to receive a few dollars.  The issues which matter to NEA and AFT members have to do with labor laws, governmental unfunded mandates, and collective bargaining regulations.  How those complex issues work requires that all sides maintain clear lines of communication—during my time as teacher representative, our local had to work with numerous board members and administrators who did not agree with our positions; some even actively sought our elimination.  Yet, we continued to interact, negotiate, and ultimately hammer out agreements which allowed for working relationships to exist and the shared goal of educating kids to continue.  Nobody’s expecting García and DeVos to go on joint vacations or to become besties—the teachers just need her to communicate their opinions and represent their interests, regardless of how hostile DeVos is to those views.

Refusing to engage with DeVos might play well with García’s membership and enhance her popularity among the anti-DeVos crowd (which includes most teachers), but it’s hard to see how it helps out the schools where her members work.  We have definitely entered a different political environment, and I certainly don’t want to overstate the influence DeVos will wield (I’ve actually written exactly the opposite), but grandstanding instead of doing the job you’ve been elected to do hardly seems an effective strategy.  Maybe García has some unstated plan which will make this seeming futile petulance pay off in the long run, but for now, I don’t believe giving DeVos the silent treatment will serve anyone’s best interests—except maybe Devos’s since she will have to interact with one less critic.  And this will improve the lot of NEA teachers how…?

For ideas that can improve public education, you might want to read Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found here.

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