‘If you truly cared’ — angry president of largest teachers union sends message to school reformers

It’s been a bad week for teachers unions — what with a California judge tossing out state statutes providing job protections for teachers and attendant publicity, including an article in Politico Pro with the headline, “The Fall of Teachers’ Unions‘. But let’s face it: Headlines have been screaming for years that teachers unions were “under siege.”

A 2013 Education Week commentary with the headline “The Plight of Teachers’ Unions” says:

Teachers’ unions are under siege nationwide. Criticism by political leaders and education reformers has snowballed. In recent years, government and unions have battled over tenure, teacher assessment, testing, the length of the school day, class size, school closures, and pay for performance.

2013 headline in the Hechinger Report said, “Under siege—and in bid to stay relevant—teacher unions evolve.”

A 2012 story in The New York Times about a teachers strike in Chicago (which, incidentally, didn’t turn out terribly for the teachers) says, “In Standoff, Latest Sign of Unions Under Siege.”

Indeed, teachers unions are facing unprecedented stress as the teaching profession has come under assault from those who want to take away their job protections and cast them as the biggest problems in student underachievement, but all unions in general face stresses for a variety of reasons. In fact, union membership in this country has been falling since 1947, when the Taft-Hartley Act, an anti-union law, was passed.  While it is certainly true that unions were very late in recognizing that they needed to make changes in their views on issues such as teacher evaluation, it would be simplistic to say that unions are doing themselves in all on their own. A shift in the base of the Democratic Party — traditionally a friend to the labor movement — toward Wall Street hasn’t helped.

The ruling earlier this week by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf  M. Treu revealed as much about Treu’s views of the facts as the facts themselves.  He accepted what is really a specious argument offered in the “Vergara trial” that state laws giving job protections to public school teachers deprive students of their constitutional right to an adequate education. The statutes themselves don’t do that. How those statutes are implemented is a different story, but that’s not the fault of the statutes. In any case, Treu’s ruling, which he stayed pending an appeal, sparked victory parties among reformers and promises of more lawsuits against teachers unions around the country.

USA Today ran a full-page ad by an anti-union group urging people to sue teachers and their unions (not a new call by this group) and Politico ran its story, which got a lot of Twitter attention. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union, sent a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan criticizing his praise for the Treu ruling (which you can read here), and Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, made a video, which you can watch (above) or read (see transcript below), expressing unusual public anger for the labor leader.

Of course teachers unions’ leaders are upset and responding publicly to the bad news. There is dissension in the unions, and their leaders are being challenged by some parts of their membership. But are teachers unions really in free-fall and about to collapse? The two largest teachers unions still have more than 4 million members collectively, most (though not all of them) teachers. Don’t put a lot of money on that bet.

Here are Van Roekel’s remarks:

Yesterday, when political ideologues were running full page ads attacking teachers and calling kids garbage — I was in the small town of Emporia, Kansas helping to dedicate a memorial to educators who made the ultimate sacrifice for their students. The headlines in the last few days have been dominated by political attacks against public school educators, while scant attention was paid to a cherished child who lost his life to yet another gun attack in a school.

It’s easy to get discouraged when the rhetoric of our opponents dominates the headlines and the airwaves.

But I, like you, don’t look at the world through the pages of USA Today or the headlines in Politico. I see the world through the eyes of the students I have taught and the eyes of educators who you and I work with every day to fight for great public schools for every student.

We look through their eyes and see those attacks, those headlines and get angry.

Angry at a system that would vilify dedicated educators who get up every day with one focus — helping their students succeed.

Angry at a system that’s narrowly focused on small silver-bullet solutions while blind to the larger problems of poverty, inequity and the growing gulf that separates students from the opportunity to succeed.

And Yes — I get angry at corporate interests that would rather see public schools as a billion-dollar enterprise and our children as commodities to be profited from rather than a public good and the driving force for excellence AND equity.

I have a message for those people who would seek to reduce children to a test score and teaching to a technological transaction.

You are mistaken if you think we will see your attacks and get discouraged, that we will read the headlines and give up.

You may put students in the name of your campaigns but that doesn’t mean you really care about the millions of children in our public schools.

If you did truly care, you would look at the more than half of public-school children who live in poverty and wage your crusades against the inequity in our economy.

If you truly cared, you would look at the deteriorating conditions in schools across this country and aim your fire at politicians who have starved our schools of the resources to succeed and then punished them for their failures.

If you truly cared, then you would see the scourge of violence that has once again taken away a young life and run your full page ads demanding action to end the plague of gun violence in our schools and communities.

Yesterday those opponents of public education were celebrating their political wins and driving their version of the story on education hoping that in declaring victory we – educators, our association – would concede defeat.

But what they don’t realize is that I am a teacher. I, like the millions of educators across this country, won’t give up on our kids.

I will continue to fight for them, and for the educators across this country who dedicate themselves to fulfilling the promise of another generation of students.

This association won’t give up until we have brought together everyone who believes in the promise of great public schools for all and we’ve declared victory for our kids.

I, like you, won’t give up because we are educators.

We are NEA.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | June 14