Purpose of AFT ‘Reform’ Fund Questioned

Published December 1, 2008

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, has announced the creation of a new fund to “support sustainable, innovative, and collaborative reform projects … to strengthen our public schools.”

Critics say the new AFT Innovation Fund is a public relations ploy and the union still strongly opposes real reform.

Few specifics about the fund were available at press time. Union officials had reported they expected to spend four to six months planning the program and to have no projects operating before 2009. They said the fund will start with $1 million in union cash, and they will seek additional funds from philanthropic sources.

The September announcement followed closely on the heels of the Democratic National Convention, which took place in August, during which teacher unions came in for some unexpected criticism as enemies of reform.

Existing Model

In a column published in the October issue of the union’s newspaper, American Teacher, AFT President Randi Weingarten elaborated on the topic.

“The Innovation Fund will work to strike a balance between advancing programs with a proven track record and taking risks on approaches that are long on common sense but which currently may be short on evidence,” Weingarten wrote.

“In fact,” Weingarten continued, “I expect the Innovation Fund to support good ideas that no one else has ever tried, ideas we have reason to believe will be successful, but which have yet to receive a seal of approval from the so-called education establishment.”

To illustrate past AFT support for innovative reforms, union officials pointed to AFT-backed initiatives such as Toledo, Ohio’s teacher mentoring and evaluation program; a differentiated teacher pay plan in Douglas County, Colorado; and union-sponsored charter schools.

“The AFT has a long-standing history of reform,” Weingarten said in the union’s announcement about the fund. “With the Innovation Fund, the AFT will be able to support and expand these types of reforms in a systemic way.”

Skeptical Reaction

Despite the reform language surrounding the fund’s launch, some union and education watchdogs expressed doubts about AFT’s reform record and the true motives behind the fund.

“The Toledo peer review program has been around longer than the first charter school. If it’s such an innovation, why hasn’t it swept the country?” asked Mike Antonucci, director of the teachers-union monitoring Education Intelligence Agency, based in California. “If ‘union-partnered’ charter schools are so great, why do teacher unions all across the nation demand caps on the number of charter schools? If differentiated pay is lauded in Douglas County, why is it fought everywhere else?”

Antonucci said he suspects AFT’s creation of the fund is driven more by public relations concerns than a desire to explore really innovative reforms.

“The union’s biggest weakness is its terrible public image,” Antonucci said. Teacher unions are “seen as the primary obstacle to education reform—regardless of what form that education reform takes. The purpose of the AFT Innovation Fund is to have something to point to whenever this sore topic is raised.”

Hopeful Interpretation

Joe Williams, executive director of the New York City-based Democrats for Education Reform, which hosted a panel discussion at the Democratic National Convention during which teacher unions were painted as reform obstructionists, said creating the fund probably is a public relations move. That is not, however, necessarily incompatible with sincere reform efforts, he said.

“I think that [the AFT is] frustrated that they’ve been labeled as anti-reform,” Williams said. “I think it’s definitely public relations, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t open to reform. The best defense is a good offense.”

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom in Washington, DC.