A document posted on the American Federation of Teachers’ website, removed on Aug. 3, details the union’s “kill mode” strategy to convert the Connecticut version of Parent Trigger legislation into an advisory committee with no “true governing authority.” Among the factors assisting the AFT, the document says, was the “absence of charter school and parent groups from the table.”
“This is just standard politics, and what you would expect from unions,” said Terry Moe, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. “Any time they say they support any sort of reform, reformers’ ears should prick up and [they should] say, ‘What is going on here?’ Either unions are being pressured into something they don’t want to do, or they’ll say they support it and behind the scenes do everything they can to kill and stop it.”
The document, secured by the website Dropout Nation, describes AFT’s “dual strategy” of lobbying against the bill to co-chairs and members of the state education committee and meeting with legislative leadership to “create a backstop” while simultaneously meeting with Parent Trigger advocates to discuss shared concerns and “steer them in an ongoing, proactive action.”
Betraying Parent Trust
This approach caused parent groups to trust the AFT as a partner in the process, and they now feel betrayed, said Gwen Samuels, president of the Connecticut Parent Union.
“They ought to be ashamed of themselves, because they’re setting back the parent partnership messaging 100 years,” she said.
Parent Trigger laws typically, as enacted in California in 2010, give a majority of parents of children in a persistently failing school the power to force their school district to enact one of several changes, such as conversion to a charter school, “turnaround” or “transformation” under federal No Child Left Behind provisions, or closure.
In spring 2010, Connecticut parents tried to import the law to help close the state’s massive achievement gap, attending legislative hearings by the thousand. Instead they got “school governance councils,” elected advisory councils formed with a majority of parents, that can recommend changes after three years of a school’s poor performance.
No Substantive Change
The ability to recommend changes is hardly a change from the current system, said Linda Serrato, deputy communications director for Parent Revolution, an organization promoting the Parent Trigger, since that’s largely the function of existing advisory boards and parent-teacher associations.
“[Parents] are the only advocates when it comes to schooling whose only interest is getting the best education for their kids,” she said. “That’s the point of the Parent Trigger and parent unions, that when they have a concern they don’t just get a nice letter but can actually start a discussion about how to solve this problem.”
Pretense of Reform
The union clearly considers the weakening of the legislation a success, as the document comes from a presentation at the AFT’s TEACH 2011 conference in July, though spokesmen did not return repeated inquiries about the documents now missing from the AFT website. Its best strategy, the document says, was learning that publicly saying “no is not an option,” so the AFT “dragged [the Connecticut Education Association, a National Education Association union affiliate] along kicking and screaming because teachers had to be united” behind a toothless alternative to the planned law.
That approach is nothing new for politics and interest groups, merely indicating the AFT is politically sophisticated in accomplishing its primary goal of guarding teachers’ jobs, Moe said.
The AFT’s image as a reform union, he said, is very important for them to protect because in the current political climate “they don’t want to be regarded as Neanderthals blocking everything.” Maintaining that image pushes the AFT to take its pursuit of job security and increasing membership behind the scenes while publicly proclaiming their interest in “fairness,” “teachers’ voices,” and “collaboration,” he observed.
“People can’t see that unions are simply not going to pursue [reform] goals,” he said. “It’s not because they’re bad; it’s just because they’re unions. That’s what confuses people, I think.”
“How Connecticut Diffused the Parent Trigger,” by Jennifer Berigan of AFT Connecticut, is available online at http://rishawnbiddle.org/outsidereports/aft_parentpower_guide.pdf.
Image by Bernard Pollack of AFT President Randi Weingarten.