Sometimes, the mask slips.
The American Federation of Teachers this past week found itself awkwardly explaining away a revealing PowerPoint presentation that laid out how union operatives last year "diffused" (sic) the Parent Trigger in Connecticut. The controversy, which has since attracted attention from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, the Hartford Courant, and the Washington Post, shows the lengths to which the teachers unions will go to co-opt innovative reforms and defend an indefensible status quo.
The Parent Trigger is a law that empowers half of parents at a failing school to force a local district to undertake certain prescribed reforms. It originated last year with landmark legislation in California, and spread quickly to the Nutmeg State where the Connecticut Education Association and the AFT Connecticut (ConnFed) successfully diluted the bill (part of a larger package of legislation aimed at improving Connecticut's chances at winning some federal Race to the Top funding. So much for that!).
AFT President Randi Weingarten on Wednesday offered a qualified mea culpa for the PowerPoint, which education writer RiShawn Biddle exposed last week at his Dropout Nation website. (See Biddle's follow-up posts here, here, here and here.)
"The presentation, given at an AFT conference, was created and delivered by a staffer from our Connecticut affiliate--and was one of more than 100 conference workshops and sessions attended by more than 2,000 educators," Weingarten wrote at the Huffington Post. "The presentation did not reflect my views or those of the AFT, and we removed it from our website." (Public Sector Inc. readers, however, can download and read a PDF of the presentation here: t145_damagingpres.pdf)
"More important," Weingarten added, "the presentation's sentiments ran counter to what needs to be done to ensure our children get the education they deserve: Parents and teachers must work together. That's why we apologized for both the PowerPoint and the concern it raised."
Right. Also, the PowerPoint was embarrassing and presented a side of the union that Weingarten would have preferred remain confined to off-the-record seminars and water-cooler banter. But then the former president of New York's United Federation of Teachers added: "Not wanting the facts to get in the way of their partisan narrative, however, some critics have accused the AFT of trying to shut parents out, discouraging them from being involved in their children's schools. For the record, nothing could be further from the truth. It's important to set the record straight."
She then proceeds to dissemble for five paragraphs.
Weingarten's apology and explanation might be believable to somebody who either hasn't seen the PowerPoint (again, you can read it right here) or doesn't understand how hard the teachers unions fought to lock the Parent Trigger in Connecticut, California and elsewhere. (Turns out, that's most people.)
The PowerPoint describes the union's "Plan A" and "Plan B" in Connecticut. Plan A was "Kill Mode." That's simple enough. Tough to misinterpret. Refreshingly unambiguous and jargon-free. The idea was to stop the bill in committee. When that failed, union lobbyists moved on to the slightly more nuanced Plan B: "Engage the Opposition." Just who is the "Opposition" in this scenario? Certain politicians, obviously, such as bill sponsor Jason. Reform groups, too. And, at some point, parents.
Engaging the opposition meant making certain that if the legislature was going to pass a Parent Trigger measure, it would be something the unions could live with. That is to say, it wouldn't be much of a Parent Trigger at all.
The presentation also notes early on that the AFT "learned from mistakes" union functionaries made in California, including "inflammatory rhetoric" that turned off would-be allies. Most notoriously, California Federation of Teachers President Marty Hittelman repeated referred to California's bill as a "lynch mob provision." The term didn't go over well with the Latino and black parents rallying for the law. (How bad was Hittelman's gaffe? So bad that the Los Angeles director of Al Sharpton's National Action Network demanded an apology. Hittelman never backed down.)
Knowing all of that, Weingarten's apology and rationalization becomes much harder to accept. "The truth is," Weingarten writes, "the Connecticut law is a good one. It achieves the goal of empowering parents to influence the governance and direction of public schools in the state."
No it isn't, and no it doesn't. Connecticut's law shouldn't even be called a Parent Trigger. Unlike California's law, which is not without its drawbacks, Connecticut imposes no particular burdens or requirements on the state or local education establishment whatsoever. Instead, Connecticut's law merely authorizes for parents to hold the majority of seats on phony-baloney school governance councils. If their school hasn't made progress for three consecutive years under federal No Child Left Behind rules, they can vote to recommend changes, including the reconstitution of schools, but the local education agency is under no particular obligation to act on the recommendations.
The honest-to-goodness truth is in the PowerPoint: The parent-led school governance councils "are advisory and do not have true governing authority." They're a sham, a palliative to parent-activists and nothing more. Weingarten and her colleagues know this. As ConnFed spokesman Eric Bailey put it to the New Haven Independent the other day, "We stand by the legislation and the work we did on it."
Parent activists, naturally, were outraged by the AFT PowerPoint. The Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution organized a press conference call earlier this week featuring parent activists from California, New York, Texas and, of course, Connecticut.
Parent Revolution Executive Director Ben Austin said the PowerPoint is "a frightening revelation that powerful interests are organizing against parents trying to use the law." At the same time, he praised Weingarten's efforts to work with reformers on bringing "commonsense accountability to teachers contracts."
"We are progressives. We believe in the union movement. Many of use come out of union politics," Austin said. "We applaud Weingarten for her good work. She's a real progressive leader, and hopefully one day she can be a progressive partner."
Gwen Samuel, a mother of two who runs the Connecticut Parent Union as well as a group called the State of Black Connecticut, was one of the most vocal proponents of Connecticut's bill last year. She said was happy the legislature managed to pass any sort of bill, and that in her view, "having the school governance council was better than having nothing." But now that she's seen the AFT's PowerPoint, Samuel says she feels "a little duped."
Samuel's group has invited Weingarten to Connecticut for a face-to-face chat about parent empowerment. But she also sounded a radical note.
"I want a real trigger," Samuels said. "If [the unions] are working this hard to oppose this trigger, I'd like to know what they're doing in the classroom."