In a recent interview with Thoughts on Public Education (Top-Ed), Dean Vogel, the new CTA boss, told Top-Ed’s John Fensterwald that the CTA “is really about making things better for kids, and making learning environments better for kids, and – and that’s where our members are, and they’re the ones that know about that, and – and so I really want to help them feel a reconnection to the union that’s representing them and –and fight for what’s best for public education.”
So what’s my beef with Vogel?
First, this rambling, incoherent statement is as meaningful as Obama’s mantra, Change We Can Believe In. The quote says nothing concrete about what the union is or does or how it intends to get there. It’s simply a feel-good sound bite meant to portray the union as the preeminent child advocacy organization in the state, which it is not.
This brings us to my second gripe: unions are supposed to fight for the interests of their members, not their clients. Obviously teachers care about their clients (i.e., students) and constantly make sacrifices to help them. However, a union that places the interests of the students above those of the teachers, as implied by Vogel’s quote, is not a union at all, but a child or education advocacy organization, of which there are already plenty. This perspective leads inevitably (and consistently) to concessions to administrators and politicians that result in pay and benefits cuts, reduce their job security, limit their free speech, weaken their right to due process and generally attack their working and living conditions.
Even when concessions are meant to benefit students they often do not. Let’s take Vogel’s notion that the reform movement is a “pseudo-reform” movement and that teachers unions can and should be a part of “real” reform. The mistake in this perspective is that it starts from a defense position: teachers are under attack by the Ed Deformers and must prove that they are even more reformist than Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates and Eli Broad. So, if the Ed Deformers say that the evaluation system is broken, CTA and NEA say, yes it is, we want to fix it, too. If the Ed Deformers say that student performance should be used to evaluate teachers, the unions say, yes (just make sure that students are evaluated with accurate assessments). If the Ed Deformers say that accountability by testing is necessary, the unions say, well, o.k., just make sure those tests measure what they say they do. The consequence is that no one really puts up a fight about testing. The fact that all standardized tests (as well as graduation rates, the achievement gap, suspension and expulsion rates) correlate far more strongly with student wealth than with anything that happens in school gets buried in the scramble to appear just as reformist and kid-loving as the corporate raiders trying to weaken the unions. Consequently, the students continue to get tested up the wazoo. They continue to lose instructional minutes, electives, and sometimes even core content like science, as their schools impose more test preparation and practice. And they continue to come to school hungry, homeless, sick and filled with stress and anxiety caused by the material insecurity at home.
In the interview, Festerwald brings up an interesting paradox: CTA is considered one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, players in Sacramento. The Union is heavily funded through its members’ dues and generously donates to candidates and initiative campaigns. Yet despite all this power, California remains at the bottom of the nation in terms of per pupil spending, librarians, nurses, counselors and length of school year. Vogel tried to place the blame on the economy and the collapse of the housing market. Fensterwald called him on it and reminded him that California was already at the bottom before the recession. Vogel then blamed it on the tax structure, implying that the wealthy and their corporations weren’t paying enough, which is a positive step. At least the union finally has the courage to attack the greed of the wealthy, sort of.
The problem is that a powerful union should be able to ask for what it wants AND get it. The CTA continually asks for more funding and fails to get it. On the contrary, K-12 education has lost over $18 billion in the last three years and looks poised to lose more this coming school year. Therefore, it is inaccurate to call the CTA a powerful union. They certainly are not an effective union, at least not in terms of representing their membership. They are, however, very effective at keeping the Democratic party machine well lubricated and at maintaining a seat at the banquet table, where their bosses, like Vogel, can continue to rub elbows, hobnob and eat sumptuously with legislators and their business cronies.
A powerful and effective union would be one that struck such fear into the hearts of the ruling elite that they would not consider attacking education funding or the teaching profession in the first place. A truly powerful union merely has to threaten to strike in order to get the bosses to back down or to accept proactive and radical demands.
This kind of power cannot be achieved by purchasing the loyalty of politicians or by lobbying or by allowing the bosses to dictate the terms of the debate (e.g., the delusion that schools are bad because the evaluation system is broken). It can only be achieved by successfully striking and engaging in other forms of direct action on a regular basis. It can only be achieved by demanding what we really want (e.g., a massively increased and consistent funding stream), rather than accepting a contrived reality (e.g., there is no money, there is no other solution than another year of cuts), or constantly being on the defensive.
Instead, Vogel blames the heavens: “We have a real difficult time in the last. . . 10-15 years . . . having this kind of argument. . . without personalizing it, or making it a highly-politically-charged thing.”
This is a complete misreading of reality. Sure, there definitely is some party-line dogmatism in Sacramento (and D.C.), particularly with regards taxation. But the declining share of taxes being paid by the wealthy is not due to the inability of lawmakers to communicate with each other in a civilized manner. It has been supported by (and has benefited) members of both parties, all of whom are among the wealthiest 10% of Americans. If Vogel wants to see the wealthy pay more taxes and the state to have a dedicated, ample and consistent stream of funding for education, he has to invest the time and resources into organizing and mobilizing his members for a general strike.
Yet just the opposite has been occurring. During the CTA’s recent “State of Emergency” actions in Sacramento (see here, here and here), for example, the union wasn’t even asking for the wealthy to pay more. They weren’t asking for a steady, ample or consistent funding stream. They were asking for an extension of regressive taxes that would have placed the burden of bailing out the schools on the backs of the working and middle classes and it would have kept funding near the level of the previous year, which was still $18 billion short of three years ago. And in order to achieve these pathetic goals, the union engaged in wimpy actions like rallies in front of the state capital and talking to legislators. Members were told not to break any laws or try to occupy the capital. A strike was never called. The only direct actions taken were purely symbolic mass arrests of a few progressive teachers from the S.F. Bay Area and some UC Santa Cruz students who came in solidarity. Oh yeah, outgoing CTA President David Sanchez also got himself arrested on the last day, a purely symbolic action as it has no hopes of shutting the capital down or placing any pressure on lawmakers.