Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Politico Says Ed "Reformers" Are Worried That The Fenty Loss Has Large Implications For The Ed "Reform" Movement

A mainstream political press article actually seems to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, Rhee and Fenty brought about their own downfall with their arrogance, autocratic leadership, and derision for opponents and that maybe, just maybe, other education "reformers" might want to learn a lesson from their loss.

Oh, and that teachers might actually have some power to fight back:

Mayor Adrian Fenty staked his career on overhauling the District of Columbia’s education system with Obama-style reforms — closing dozens of failing schools and firing hundreds of teachers.

And then the teachers struck back.

Fenty’s defeat this week — due in no small part to community and teachers union resistance to his education push — is emerging as a cautionary tale for education reformers, who fear that it could cause others to back away from aggressive reform programs swept into the mainstream by President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top.”

His downfall, observers fret, serves notice to officeholders coast to coast that they could suffer Fenty’s fate if they embark on that ambitious brand of school reform championed by Fenty and his controversial schools chief Michelle Rhee.

“This is a real wake-up call for the Obama administration,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who studies teachers unions. “The emphasis on firing teachers which was central to Rhee’s approach — she stood in a picture on the cover of Time magazine with a broom. That doesn’t seem to resonate with voters.”

Fenty wasn’t the only one to draw the teachers’ ire this week. In three New York state races Tuesday night, the teachers union and its allies helped beat back challengers who supported charter schools and other reform measures.

And now, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Roy Barnes — who made a name as an education reformer as his first go-around as the state’s governor — is apologizing to the teachers union that kicked him to the curb in 2002. As governor of the state, Barnes had pushed through a controversial package of reforms, including annual student testing and linking teacher pay to performance.

To be sure, a variety of local factors contributed to Fenty’s defeat, but by far his most high-profile initiative — and the one that drew the most fire — was school reform.

Rhee’s reforms closely mirrored those pushed by Obama’s “Race to the Top” sweepstakes to encourage more teacher accountability and tougher standards. Though she landed in Washington in 2007, Rhee set to work reorganizing the central office. She negotiated an innovative new contract with the Washington Teachers’ Union containing initiatives historically spurned by teachers. Rhee fired staff for poor performance, even dismissing her daughters’ principal. Fenty was supportive and approved the firing of several hundred teachers in the middle of his primary campaign.

But even some Fenty backers acknowledge he and Rhee didn’t always handle the reforms well, putting through wrenching changes in the schools without enough community buy-in, and giving critics plenty of ammunition to say they took a high-handed approach to an issue dear — and deeply emotional — to many parents.

And that’s where the American Federation of Teachers came in. The national union spent roughly $1 million in contributions to a labor-backed independent expenditure campaign — also supported by the public workers union AFSCME — and on its own extensive political operation, a Democratic political consultant familiar with the details of the spending told POLITICO.

The national union declined to comment. George Parker, president of AFT’s local Washington Teachers’ Union, said it’s “no secret” that Fenty wasn’t a friend of unions.

“The message is that you cannot omit and exclude parents, teachers and communities in terms of developing an education reform platform,” he said. “It is a referendum on the kind of leadership the city wants. The mayor’s style — un-collaborative and un-transparent — had as much to do with the election as education itself.”

Teachers unions, and AFT, in particular, haven’t been shy about expressing their resistance to the Obama-style reforms and saying they unfairly punish teachers for much broader problems in the education system. The Fenty vote shows that the unions can do something about it, beyond just complain, and serves as an important bit of electoral muscle-flexing for the AFT, Kahlenberg said.

“This is big and highly symbolic for the teachers unions,” said Kahlenberg.

But now that Fenty is out, reformers worry that it will be harder to make such reforms stick elsewhere. Justin Cohen, who previously worked for Rhee and now runs a school-turnaround nonprofit, asked, “How do you make, in a politically charged environment, real change sustainable?”

Let me repeat some of the lessons of Tuesday's loss not only for the autocratic ed reform crowd who think only THEY have the answers for public education but also for the more cautious teachers union people who seem to think allowing the ed deform movement to frame education reform issues and spend all their time reacting to the latest outrage against the union or scapegoating of teachers is the best strategy to fight back:

And then the teachers struck back.

Fenty lost due in no small part to community and teachers union resistance to his education push.

Fenty's loss could cause others to back away from aggressive reform programs swept into the mainstream by President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top."

See how this works - expose the education reform movement for the corporate-style usurpation of public education that it is.

Remind people that teachers are NOT the sole nor the most important influence on children - parents are.

Show people how the "value-added" testing apparatus that ed reformers gleefully use to evaluate teachers and fire them is full of flaws - in fact, the margins of error are so large you could drive Kevin Johnson's libido through them and STILL have room for the egos of Rhee, Fenty, Duncan AND Obama.

Show people that adding new standardized assessments to every subject at every grade level twice a year in order to "assess" both students and teachers is NOT going to improve education, especially if the tests are high stakes and schools will be closed and teachers fired if the scores are low - rather it is going to create test prep factories in every urban city that is forced to undertake the Obama.Rhee/Bloomberg/Klein/Duncan reforms.

Finally, promote a model of collaboration and between teachers, parents, students AND politicians in which EVERYBODY has to bear responsibility for the failures in the public education system - currently parents, students and politicians skate free and teachers bear ALL the blame.

In the short term, things are going to get even uglier for teachers. Waiting for Spiderman and the NBC Ed Deform Summit will give corporate forces lots of opportunities to scapegoat unionized teachers for all the problems in public education.

But outside of the corporate media, it is becoming clear that the ed deform movement is not resonating with much of the public - especially the part about scapegoating teachers for all the problems in the education system.

Now let's see if we can build on this and drive back some of the Obama/Bloomberg/Klein/Duncan/Rhee/Gates/Broad agenda.


  1. Politico failed to mention that voters can usually recognize, as in Rhee's case, a vicious sociopath when they see one.

  2. I am envious of the DC teachers and voters who defeated Fenty, I am envious of the teachers in Chicago and voting Karen Lewis in charge of their union, yet, I am still extremely ashamed that our own NYC teachers' union was silent, when an obvious endorsement of Bill Thompson for mayor might have sent Bloomberg packing and would have been the first blow to this ed-reform movement.

  3. Pogue,

    Do not be envious of the DC teachers - Rhee isn't gone yet, even if she does go, Gray might bring some other odious teacher-basher in to replace her, and they have to live with a contract that gives the District the ability to replace 100% of the teachers in 4 years.

    Nothing to envy them for.

    As for Chicago, yes, you're right to be envious of having a union leader like Karen Lewis to lead the local. I WISH we had somebody like that too. As Norm Scott says, we have to keep mobilizing, educating and building for that day. But I think before that ever happens, a whole slew of UFTer's would have to be carted out in handcuffs on RICO charges.

    Michael, she really is a sociopath. Did you see Gene Robinson's comment that he's seen Third World dictators shed power with more grace than Rhee has? And Robinson has been a supporter of Rhee.