By Ken Libby of Portland, Oregon. Ken is a Democratic activist and education policy blogger. Learn more at his blog, Schools Matter.
Recently, the CEO of a Portland-based nonprofit found himself criticized for remarks he made at a major conference.
Jonah Edelman, leader of the Portland-based education advocacy organization Stand for Children, spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival about the organization's work in Illinois. He summarized Stand's work in the state, particularly their efforts to revamp teacher hiring, evaluation, and termination practices. Aspen posted a video of the event and, for a variety of reasons that are clear to any viewer, it attracted a great deal of attention from those in the education field.
Here are two essential clips. The first includes nearly 15 minutes of Edelman's controversial comments. The second shorter video includes a legislator talking about Stand's threats against candidates, as well as some of Edelman's comments.
Here is a link to the full video.
Edelman eventually offered an extended apology for what he said.
Why did this video cause such a stir from a variety of people across the educational spectrum? On the jump...
First, Jonah's account is a badly distorted version of what happened in Illinois. In reality, Stand influenced the process mostly by proposing a truly awful bill, which forced unions and others to craft a far more reasonable piece of legislation. Here's what really happened:
Stand entered Illinois late last year, established a PAC, and quickly raised over $3 million from wealthy donors. Along with another advocacy organization, Advance Illinois, Stand proposed an aggressive piece of legislation called "Performance Counts." The bill would have stripped away tenure (which is the right to due process, not a job for life); outlawed the use of seniority in layoff decisions; and effectively eliminated the unions' right to strike. The bill had a few highly publicized hearings, but ultimately did not pass during the 2010 lame duck session.
In response, a coalition of unions, business groups, and advocacy organizations crafted a piece of legislation called "Accountability for All," also known as SB7. While some teachers were upset with the bill, particularly the provisions that make it difficult for the Chicago Teachers Union to strike, SB7 was a major improvement over the earlier bill pushed by Stand and Advance Illinois. Seniority remains a factor in layoff decisions, but is not the only factor; teachers retain their tenure; and unions retain the right to strike. It should be noted, however, that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for CTU to strike since 75% of all members - not 75% of voting members - will need to approve. In other words, just as Bill Sizemore tried to stop school levies with a double-majority requirement, Stand worked to stop strikes with an even tougher standard.
Second, the comments show the hardball politics Stand plays. They not only threatened lawmakers as described by Senator Langford in the video above and used them as "political vehicle[s]," but they also used their substantial finances to hire an army of lobbyists. Edelman boasts that Stand "hired eleven lobbyists, including four of the absolute best insiders and seven of the best minority lobbyists, preventing the unions from hiring them."
Third, Edelman's tone and attitude about unions came though quite clearly. For some, the fact that he boasted so publicly (and inaccurately!) about some behind-the-scenes sausage-making leaves one wondering why he couldn't simply tell the truth about Stand's role. For others, including most teachers, it's the unforgettable and palpable anti-union sentiment reverberating through his remarks. While there is room for criticisms of teachers' unions and the teacher evaluation process, these criticisms must be based on mutual trust and a genuine desire to help teachers improve their craft. Suffice to say, any trust that existed has been broken, and Stand will have a much more difficult time convincing teachers that they're trying to improve the profession.
While most of the video and surrounding media storm has focused on his remarks about Illinois, Jonah offered a brief comment about a few northwest states, too:
"Unfortunately, Washingon, Oregon, and California, you got to play win-lose politics because of the way the unions operate. So you can't be shy about that."
Jonah may find it necessary to play "win-lose" politics in Oregon, but that strategy may seriously backfire. Recently, a parent volunteer stepped down from her role as a co-leader of a Stand team in Portland. She cited Stand's diminishing support for stronger education funding and increased focus on questionable reform proposals as reasons for her departure, including Stand's at least tacit approval of a tax cut on capital gains income that would primarily benefit the wealthy while taking millions away from schools and other public services. Other volunteers and supporters have expressed their concerns about Stand's recent involvement in education issues, including their work as a social media and outreach partner for "Waiting for 'Superman,'" support of the research-challenged (to put it kindly) Race to the Top program, and some of the ultra-conservative, big money backers supporting Stand.
Over the past few years, Stand has undergone some major changes. This was an organization that used to focus on adequate school funding, child health issues, affordable child care, ensuring small class sizes for students, and other truly progressive improvements.
Nowadays, Stand is more likely to parachute into a new state in support of highly-questionable education legislation than to advocate for any of the aforementioned reforms. This is a very unfortunate change, and one that has not received adequate attention.
July 15, 2011 | |