VIDEO: Is California’s Teacher Union Building Movement Power?

By Anthony Cody | livingindialogue.com | 2017 | Living In Dialogue | Twitter: @LivingnDialogueNetwork for Public Education | Twitter: Network4pubEd

By Anthony Cody

Last weekend the Network for Public Education held its fourth annual conference in Oakland, attended by about 450 activists from around the country. The last panel on Saturday afternoon was a conversation I led with Massachusetts Teachers Association president Barbara Madeloni and California Teachers Association president Eric Heins.

As this discussion was happening, word was circulating that CTA was getting ready to endorse Gavin Newsom in the governor’s race. [and word has it that yesterday, the 800 member rep council did so.]  A few weeks prior, on September 26, Newsom was asked his views on charter schools, and said this, (see video edited by Lauren Steiner.):

I’m not interested in the stale and raging debate about which side, which camp you’re on – are you with the charter people, are you anti-charter, are you with the teachers, are you anti-teacher. I’ve been hearing that damn debate for ten damn years. With all due respect, I got four kids. I have an eight year old, second grade. I have a five, three and a one year old. I’m not gonna wait around until they’ve all graduated to resolve whether Eli Broad was right or whether or not the CTA was wrong. I’m not interested in that debate. I’m interested in shaping a different conversation around a 21st century education system that brings people together, that could shape public opinion, not just here in the state, but could shape an agenda more broadly across the country, particularly in a time of Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump. We need that kind of leadership.

In this statement, I see someone who is looking for support from all sides, and is doing his best to dance around the issue and sound bold, while actually refusing to take a stand. I saw the conversation with Heins and Madeloni as a chance to explore this. Barbara Madeloni shared an interesting perspective that might help us here in California.

Barbara Madeloni: starting at Minute 28.

One of the reasons that Charlie Baker is the governor of Massachusetts is that the Democrats had put forward a candidate who, about six-seven weeks out… made disparaging remarks about Massachusetts public schools relative to charter schools. Talk about relationships – I was driving and I was like “What the hell were you thinking? You don’t understand how pissed off my members are about this. You’re gonna take this back right away!” It was crazy. She lost by only about 14,000 votes, and I’ll tell you, I hope my members didn’t vote for her. Because we can’t be supporting candidates who think they can say things like that and then expect the 110,000 members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association to vote for them. We got where we are because we kept voting for people like that. What I say about Besty DeVos is the Democrats walked us to the abyss that is Betsy DeVos. And now they’re all, like, “Oh No, we didn’t mean vouchers! We just meant charter schools.” That’s nonsense. We gotta call them on that, and we gotta plant a flag for what we really want, and make them come and stand with us. And stop thinking that we have to do their bidding.

Build the movement. When I was elected president of the MTA, everybody thought is was nonsense, and they thought everything that I said was nonsense. I was an insurgent candidate,. I wasn’t supposed to win, I came out of nowhere. The people in the statehouse were like “who’s she? She’s gonna lose. The whisper campaign was “she’s here for two years. She’s gone.” I didn’t care. I didn’t want to go to the statehouse anyway. We won the charter question. (Measure 2 on the state ballot last year.) And let me tell you, they look at me differently. And I don’t care, particularly, but they’re like, “Oh, that’s power.” They wanted me to think I had personal power. I wanted them to know I had movement power.

Anthony:

Speaking of what candidates say, Gavin Newsom recently said he’s “not interested in the stale debate over whether you are for or against teachers, whether CTA is wrong or Eli Broad is right” about the growth of charter schools. I think people are very concerned about what we are going to encounter should we land with him as the Democratic Party candidate. I’d appreciate it, Eric, if you could talk about the considerations you’re considering in the current (CTA endorsement) process.

Eric Heins:

Yeah, you know, out of the mouth of Gavin. Nobody hung their head more when he said that. We actually went and talked to him afterwards about what he meant, and what he actually intended to say when he said that, and what we think he should mean. What he said, and he clarified it later when he spoke at a K-12 water-cooler conference, and what he meant was that we were having the wrong debate. If the debate was about CTA versus Eli Broad, that was the wrong debate to have about schools, and the real debate to have around schools was about improving schools that all students deserve. He said it very badly. We know where he stands on our issues. I’ve had one on one conversations with him – many of them. Education’s not his first topic, clearly. There’s a tape of him on our K-12 website that kind of clarifies a little bit better what his intent was. Now I know that’s not what came out, and we’ll see how that plays out.

Anthony:

We will. And of course he has one on one conversations with people like Eli Broad as well.

Eric:

Oh, absolutely.

Anthony:

So he can tell both of us what we want to hear…and that’s where we end up without a lot…

Eric:

I get it. And then the important part is then holding him accountable to those words.

Anthony:

Which words?

Eric:

The words he tells YOU. The words he told us, and told our members in the interviews, and the words he says out on the stump, on the campaign trail, those are the things we have to hold him accountable for, and those are the things the labor movement has to hold him accountable for, and make sure he does hang on to those types of things.

While I have not been involved in CTA leadership, I was a dues-paying member for the 24 years that I worked in Oakland schools, and have seen how the organization works. As an organization with more than two hundred thousand members, and millions of dollars to spend in campaign donations, they wield a lot of power. In the choice of candidates to endorse, they have a keen eye on who is most likely to win. In the recent discussion about the pending endorsement of Newsom, one of the main arguments made in support of this endorsement is that Newsom has the best chance of defeating former Los Angeles mayor Villaraigosa, who is a solid supporter of charter schools. Once an endorsed candidate wins office, CTA has access. CTA leaders can get the governor on the phone. As we have seen with Governor Brown, sometimes this works. But quite often it does not, as when Brown vetoed legislation last year calling for greater financial transparency for charter schools, and just this week, when he vetoed a bill that would have given teachers maternity leave.

In the debate over the governor’s race, CTA appears to be continuing on the path of an insider strategy. Pick the winner, throw your weight behind that candidate even though they are not clearly in your corner. Parent activist Karen Wolfe has pointed out that when Newsom launched his campaign last year, he did so with major contributions from charter school supporters like John and Regina Scully, who also have donated $1.5 million to the California Charter School Association’s Super Pac. This money was used for hidden donations to influence the LA school board race last year. This sort of backing, combined with his public waffling, make for a weak commitment on the crucial issue of charter school expansion in the state.

There is another path, as suggested by Barbara Madeloni. CTA could refuse to endorse any candidate that refuses to take a clear position. We might be left backing an underdog, but we could activate and engage those 225,000 members, and try to push that candidate over the top.

Once a candidate like Newsom is elected, I do not see much we can do to hold them accountable. The moment of their first endorsement is the key point of leverage, where we should extract as much as possible in PUBLIC commitments. One on one conversations are not very useful in this regard.

The real question going forward is where our source of power will lie. Barbara Madeloni made a clear case for what she called movement power. That is the power to actively activate and mobilize our membership, as she and her fellow activists were able to do in MTA to defeat Measure Two last year. That membership cannot be activated by a candidate that refuses to take a clear stand on our issues – one who does not even want to talk about whether you are for or against teachers. The endorsement of Newsom is likely to leave members without a champion in Sacramento, even if he will take our phone calls now and then. Movement power means we withhold our endorsement until we get that public commitment, and once we get it, we show up in full force, willing to knock on doors and hang signs all over town. Without that kind of movement power, we actually have little we can do to hold anyone accountable.

Here is a video Lauren Steiner created highlighting these issues and including her followup conversation with Eric Heins.

By Anthony Cody | livingindialogue.com | 2017 | Living In Dialogue | Twitter: @LivingnDialogueNetwork for Public Education | Twitter: Network4pubEd

About Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody is the author of The Educator And The Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges The Gates Foundation Winner of the George Orwell Award, given by the NCTE Public Language Awards Committee of the National Council of Teachers of English. He was among the core organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC, which brought more than 5000 protesters to the nation’s capital. In 2013, he joined with Diane Ravitch to found the Network for Public Education, a national advocacy group that advocates for meaningful reform, and supports candidates willing to stand up for public schools. Learn more.

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