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Activist teachers challenge Sen. Bernie Sanders on corporate school reform

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential contender, speaks at the 59th annual Nevada State AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention on  Aug. 18 in Las Vegas. (LE Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP)

Earlier this month, a group of activist teachers wrote an open letter to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination against front-runner Hillary Clinton and who has gained some unexpected support around the country. These teachers support Sanders but are concerned about his views on public education and wrote to him to express their disappointment with at least one vote he cast recently in the Senate during the debate over rewriting No Child Left Behind.

Back in May 2001, Sanders voted for No Child Left Behind in the Senate, but in December of the same year, voted against the final bill, one of the few members of Congress to do so. In a recent statement to the American Federation of Teachers, he said:

I voted against No Child Left Behind in 2001, and continue to oppose the bill’s reliance on high-stakes standardized testing to direct draconian interventions. In my view, No Child Left Behind ignores several important factors in a student’s academic performance, specifically the impact of poverty, access to adequate health care, mental health, nutrition, and a wide variety of supports that children in poverty should have access to. By placing so much emphasis on standardized testing, No Child Left Behind ignores many of the skills and qualities that are vitally important in our 21st century economy, like problem solving, critical thinking, and teamwork, in favor of test preparation that provides no benefit to students after they leave school.

But during the debate last month in the Senate about legislation that seeks to rewrite NCLB and slash federal involvement in education, he supported a measure known as the Murphy amendment, which would have kept alive some of NCLB’s punitive, federally mandated actions against schools considered to be failing based on standardized test scores.

The letter by the activist teachers was published on Huffington Post by Arthur Goldstein, an ESL teacher and chapter chair of the United Federation of Teachers at Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows, N.Y.  A Sanders aide responded to the letter, sending an e-mail to Goldstein. With permission, here is the open letter to Sanders from the teachers, and then the Sanders campaign response, which Goldstein published on his Facebook page.

Here’s the open letter, with an introduction by Goldstein:

Many of us, public school teachers and parents, have enthusiastically supported Senator Sanders for President. We were encouraged by his opposition to NCLB, but disappointed when he voted for the Murphy Amendment, which would have imposed many of the conditions we’ve consistently opposed. Our students have been through more than enough of this already. Therefore we’ve written the following:
Dear Senator Sanders,
We are educators and supporters of yours, from across the country. Many of your positions on the issues that are the most significant facing the American populace resonate with us, inclusive of but not limited to economic inequality and the plutocratic maldistribution of political power.
In addition to being supporters and organizers for your campaign and the issues above, we are also some of the educators who are fighting against the privatization of public education and the test and punish philosophy that has become pervasive with far too many politicians. We champion this fight because our students, our profession, and the future of this country depend upon our changing the conditions that exist today under the failed No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top policies.
We are disappointed with your recent votes in the senate that contain provisions which perpetuate quantitatively based measures of education. Your Tennessee senatorial colleague Lamar Alexander correctly stated that what you just recently voted for, “Instead of fixing No Child Left Behind, it keeps the worst parts of it.”
Quantitative measures are invalid. They are masks for social inequalities. They merely highlight and then reflect economic and racial inequalities. Mel Riddile, “PISA: It’s Still ‘Poverty Not Stupid'”at the blog, “The Principal’s Corner”, found that numerical performance of districts mirrors the scale of economic inequalities of those districts. Statisticians have proven over and over again that the use of value added modeling is logically flawed. NCLB drove the use of value-added modeling (VAM) which negatively transformed the teaching and learning processes in the nation’s schools.
Furthermore, as union members we believe that the current education “reform” agenda is a relentless and insidious attack on unionism itself. This agenda’s usurpation of the language and iconography of the Civil Rights struggle and the limitlessness financial resources of the billionaires, hedge funders, and corporations who are championing and bank rolling it are reprehensible. It is therefore, sir, not merely an attack on children, teachers, and public education, but an undermining of the noblest and most progressive movements in American history: union rights and civil rights. We implore you to rethink your recent vote, which is wholly and utterly incongruous to your noble and progressive defense of the American working class.
In order for us to continue to organize and mobilize our communities’ voters to support you, we need you to clearly articulate a position that is anti Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and high-stakes testing (HST) and in favor of decoupling testing from teacher evaluations.
The CCSS were written by two lobbying entities, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and David Coleman, all of whom were interested in making money, rather than by K-12 educators who work with students in the classroom every day. The adoption of these standards by the states happened because the Obama administration was able to capitalize on the recession and the states’ need for an influx of federal monies for their statewide education programs. As the economy is improving and the awful realization of the CCSS testing standard charade becomes more obvious, states are abandoning the CCSS and the abusive testing regime that is embedded in it.
Senator Sanders, these standards do not facilitate conventional and/or appropriate student understanding in core curriculum and in many cases singularly serve to alienate educators and students from the very subjects they need to understand to function in society. Please accept this letter as a formal request that you begin publicly, in the Senate Chamber and on the campaign trail, stipulating that you stand with teachers against CCSS, HST and VAM. Please feel free to contact any or all of us if you need further information.
Respectfully, (organizations, for affiliation)
Alexandra Alves, UFT Chapter Leader, PS 2, Movement of Rank and File Educators (UFT), STCaucus (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Gina Amodeo (CFT, AFT), BAT
Karen Arneson, Movement of Rank and File Educators (UFT), STCaucus (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Fredrick Bertz, Board Member, United Teachers Los Angeles, (NEA, AFT – For identification only)
Lyn Bigelow, Natomas Teachers Association (CTA, NEA)
Judy Bjorke, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (AFT, NEA)
Brenda Borge, Natomas Teachers’ Association (CTA, NEA)
Tandy Braid, PEA,FLEA (AFT, NEA)
Beth Chetney, President Baldwinsville, Teachers Association, STCaucus Treasurer (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Rob Connaire, Philadelphia, Local 3 (AFT)
Gina Jeanne Damone, Canajoharie United School Employees (AFT, NEA, NYSUT), NYBAT, BAT
Albert Delgado, Chicago Teachers Union, Local 1 (AFT)
Beth Dimino, President, Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association, Chair STCaucus (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Pat Dobosz, Movement of Rank and File Educators (UFT), STCaucus (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Helen Farias, VP Sweetwater Education Association (CTA/NEA)
Nick Ferraioli, Brentwood Teachers Association (AFT, NEA, NYSUT) and Connetquot School Board Trustee
Amy Fried, Philadelphia, Local 3 (AFT)
Arthur Goldstein, UFT Chapter Leader, Francis Lewis High School, Movement of Rank and File Educators (UFT), STCaucus (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Larry Graykin, Barrington EA (NEA-NH, NEA), BAT
Elias Hadjiminas, Movement of Rank and File Educators; Solidarity (UFT), (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Nathaniel Hathaway, Malone Federation of Teachers, Vice chair STCaucus (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Caroline Hooper, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (AFT, NEA)
Terry Kalb, Retiree Vice President of my NYSUT local BOCES Educators of Eastern Suffolk
Joseph Karb, President, Springville-Griffith Faculty Association, Vice Chair STCaucus (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
David Kaufman, West Islip Teachers’Association Vice a president for Secondary Schools, member of STCaucus (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Nonie Kouneski, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (AFT, NEA)
Gayle Lakin, Prince Georges County (NEA)
Jia Lee, Movement of Rank and File Educators (UFT), (AFT, NEA, NYSUT) and Change the Stakes
August Leppelmeier, Movement of Rank and File Educators (UFT), STCaucus (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Michael Lillis, President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers, Vice Chair STCaucus (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Carl Makower, Retiree Advocate (RTC/UFT)
Barbara Mandeloni
Jo Marley, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers PFT Local 3 (AFT) and PA BATs
Louise Martin, Tal Lindenhurst (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Corinth Matera, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (AFT, NEA)
Suzanne Mears, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (AFT, NEA)
Kristen Konrad Mendoza, Buffalo Teachers Federation, NYSUT (AFT)
Rebecca Miller, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers MFT, Education Minnesota (AFT and NEA)
Jodi Szenda Monday, AAFMCC Local 6533 (AFT)
Nate Morgan, President Hastings Teachers Association, Vice Chair STCaucus (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Margaret Moschell, OEA (NEA), BAT
Lisa Muntean, LEAD Caucus NV (NEA), BATs of NV
Jon Parker, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers Building Representative (AFT) BAT (PA BATs Admin)
Pia Payne-Shannon, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT, AFT, NEA)
Roberta Reid, Movement of Rank and File Educators (UFT), STCaucus (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Valerie Rittler, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (AFT, NEA)
Mindy Rosier, Movement of Rank and File Educators (UFT), STCaucus (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Patricia Rydeen, Minneapolis Federation of Teacher (AFT, NEA)
Mike Schirtzer, Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE-UFT), STCaucus Vice Chair (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Karyn Schnaible-Coelho, FMEA (CTA, NEA), BAT
Jolinda Simes, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (AFT, NEA)
Steven Singer, Steel Valley Education Association (NEA), BAT
Lynne Siqueiros, Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers (CFT, AFT), BAT
Yvonne Lieberman Spector, BTU (NEA)
Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith, Local CTU 279 (Cleveland), OFT (Ohio, AFT), Refuse of Cuyahoga County (RoCC), Teachers for Social Justice, Opt Out Ohio, BAT Delegate
Jane Swatosh, Minneapolis Federation of Teacher (AFT, NEA)
Anna Tenaglia (PFT Local 3, AFT), BAT
Jim Thomas, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (AFT, NEA)
Patrick Walsh, UFT Chapter Leader, Movement of Rank and File Educators (UFT), STCaucus, (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Lesa Aloan Wilbert, President, Adirondack Teachers Association (AFT, NEA, NYSUT), BAT and NYBAT
Richard Willis, North Babylon Teachers Organization (AFT, NEA, NYSUT)
Mary Wester Wurl, FCFT Local 2401 (AFT), and BAT
Janine Sopp, parent, Change the Stakes, NYC Opt Out

Here’s the response from the Sanders campaign, which I am publishing with permission.

To: Arthur Goldstein
Cc: Philip Fiermonte, Cwa Cohen
Dear Brother Goldstein:
Senator Sanders has asked me to respond to your email, and share his views on the Every Child Achieves Act, standardized testing, and school accountability.
As you know, Senator Sanders has long opposed the blame-and-shame approach to school accountability embodied in No Child Left Behind. He voted against No Child Left Behind in 2001 because he believed then, as he does now, that the legislation’s narrow focus on standardized test scores ignores a broad range of factors that determine how well a school is meeting the needs of its students. Since the passage of this legislation, we have seen the devastating impact that high stakes standardized testing has had on schools all over the country. In the Senator’s home state of Vermont, nearly every school is identified as “failing,” and is threatened with increasingly proscriptive federally-determined interventions.
No Child Left Behind’s narrow focus on standardized test scores has tragically led to a significant culture shift in our nation’s schools. An obsession with testing and test preparation has taken over in countless school districts in America, and educators are being forced to dedicate hours of class time getting students ready for exams rather than teaching them new material, or strengthening essential skills and qualities like critical thinking, teamwork, and problem solving. And the worst thing is that students from low-income, urban school districts spend more time in test preparation than students from the suburbs. These hours and hours of test preparation have no educational value, and the fact that poor and minority students are disproportionately subjected to test prep at the expense of lesson time is a huge problem that must be addressed.
Last month, the senate passed the Every Child Achieves Act, which would fundamentally reform No Child Left Behind, and end its system of high stakes testing and draconian interventions. Senator Sanders supports this legislation, and believes it represents a very important step forward.
As a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the Senator had an opportunity to shape this legislation at every stage of its development. For example, he was one of the leading advocates on committee for the inclusion of a “multiple measure” accountability system that allowed states to include factors other than test scores when determining a school’s effectiveness.
In addition, he worked to provide states with significant flexibility when it comes to assessment. This legislation includes a provision written by Senator Sanders that would create a groundbreaking alternative assessment pilot program which would allow states to implement alternatives to standardized testing. If the legislation passes, these new assessments would eventually reduce the number of statewide tests children are forced to take, while providing educators with timely information on student performance.
However, this legislation is far from perfect, and there are several aspects of the Every Child Achieves Act that have caused the Senator great concern. For example, there is no requirement that states focus resources or attention on schools that are meeting the needs of middle class children, but not meeting the needs of minority, low-income and disabled children. In addition, the Senator is concerned that the bill does nothing to address resource equity, and was deeply disappointed when an amendment offered by Senators Kirk, Baldwin, Reed and Brown to address resource equity failed on the Senate floor.
As you mentioned, Senator Murphy introduced an amendment on the Senate floor that would have required states to hold schools accountable for the academic performance of low-income, minority and disabled students. Senator Sanders voted for this amendment because he believes states must do more to protect every student’s right to a quality education, and that from a civil right’s perspective, the federal government has an important role to play in protecting low-income, minority and disabled children. As you pointed out, the mechanism this amendment would have used to identify struggling schools resembles the failed policies of No Child Left Behind. This was a significant concern to the Senator, and one that he shared with the sponsors of the amendment.
Senator Sanders cast his vote on this amendment to express his disapproval with aspects of the bill that were insisted upon by Chairman Alexander and Senate Republicans and that do not reflect the best interests of vulnerable populations, or a progressive view on the distribution of education resources. He has made clear to Chairman Alexander, Ranking Member Murray, and Senate Leadership that his vote was not an endorsement of the accountability mechanism included in the amendment, but rather as a statement of his intent that other measures must be put in place to protect low-income, minority and disabled students.
As congressional leaders move toward the next step in consideration of this bill – negotiating differences with the House – Senator Sanders has urged the future leaders of the conference committee to include protections for low-income, minority and disabled students, and to do so in a way that addresses the needs of the whole child. We must ensure low-income, minority and disabled children have the same access to educational resources that their wealthy suburban peers have. In addition, we must ensure that struggling students have access to adequate supports including health, mental health and nutrition services and after school programs that help level the playing field.
For many years, educators across the country have been the loudest, strongest voices against the corporatization of our nation’s education system and for the increased funding and wraparound services that will make a difference for our children. This is a fight that Senator Sanders has been waging at the national level for 25 years, and one that he will continue to pursue.
Phil Fiermonte
Bernie 2016