The wrong strategy for Connecticut teachers

October 13, 2014

Jay Poppa, the vice president of the Bridgeport Education Association (affiliation listed for identification purposes only), argues that his state teachers' union should stop supporting Democratic politicians who preach corporate education reform dogmas as the "lesser evil."

ON FRIDAY, September 26, the board of directors of the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), which represents some 45,000 teachers, voted to endorse incumbent Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy for a second term.

The CEA leadership ignored the recommendation of the union's political action committee to not endorse any candidate running for governor, a decision that two of Connecticut's largest teacher locals in Bridgeport and Hartford had already made on their own.

The CEA is now committed to supporting the anti-union Malloy. This decision highlights the CEA's failed strategy of choosing a so-called "lesser evil" in the belief that this will help to protect teachers, students and schools from the greater evil represented by people like Republican candidate Tom Foley. However, Malloy is just as eager to carry out the dictates pushed by the profit-hungry education "reform" industry, and has publicly stated so.

In the winter and spring of 2012, Malloy proposed and helped to get passed Connecticut Senate Bill (SB) 24, a bill that was written by corporate lobbyists looking to weaken teachers' unions. Malloy angered teachers across the state that year with his infamous comment before the Connecticut House of Representatives: "Basically, the only thing you have to do [to earn tenure] is show up for four years."

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy

The CEA, then led by Executive Director Mary Loftus Levine and President Phil Apruzzese, responded to SB 24 in a manner that could only be characterized as top-down, bungling and inadequate. Apruzzese and Levine initially agreed to some of the most hated aspects of SB 24, such as the new teacher evaluation that aimed to tie teacher certification to evaluations based heavily on standardized test scores. Instead of sharply and aggressively critiquing SB 24, the CEA hugged the line between collaboration and mild criticism, effectively making its critiques weaker at a time when they needed to be sharper.

The current CEA leadership has taken some steps to change the course of the union to focus more on organizing teachers and community members against these attacks. These steps, however, have been slow and often inadequate. In fact, outside of summer organizing workshops and the Bridgeport fight to keep an elected school board, the CEA has publicly continued on the path of compromise. On some provisions of SB 24, moreover, the new leaders have positioned themselves as good partners in Malloy's education reform plan.

Even critical participation has been absent in the conversations over the "Commissioner's Network": a "turnaround" scheme calling on schools to compete for grants. The CEA and local affiliates have done little to organize or educate the public about how these programs seek to lower our expectations for schools and curtail the rights of union members. The CEA could also highlight some of the real problems our schools face, such as low funding from the state and the fact that "underperforming schools" are predominantly in working-class neighborhoods with mostly people of color.

NOW THAT election season is nearing and Malloy is trying to shore up union support, he has offered teachers a few token gestures--getting rid of Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor and alleviating some of the provisions of the new teacher evaluation plan.

Unfortunately for teachers and students, most of the damage has been done. SB 24 locks in additional state funding for charter schools when our public schools aren't even adequately funded. It still uses standardized test data to evaluate teacher performance, which will lead to more "teaching to the test."

In the coming days and weeks, we will hear CEA leaders justify their decision in many ways. They will argue that not endorsing Malloy would have been irresponsible because our allies and fellow union members were counting on us to help keep Foley out. They will tell us that Foley wanted to bring right-to-work legislation to Connecticut or bring about a "Wisconsin moment." We will hear that Malloy isn't what we want, but he's the best we can get, so we should hold our noses and vote for him anyway.

While Foley's "money follows the child" position on education is inane and his pension ideas are frightening, the truth is that there is no good choice between the two mainstream parties. Supporting Malloy will only allow him to continue a rightward slide and attack on public education while saying to us, "Well, at least I'm not Foley."

The words and actions from the CEA leadership show a lack of understanding of the forces behind the corporate education reform project. The 2010 remarks of News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch show how the American ruling class sees public education as a massive untapped market for private investment and profits. "When it comes to K through 12 education," Murdoch said, "we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching."

The problem isn't that the Democrats are too weak-willed to fight against the profit driven Murdoch and his ilk. As left-wing economist Doug Henwood wrote in 2012:

Another recurrent feature of the ["lesser evilism"] genre: a lament over the Democrats' lack of spine, which is often treated as a curable condition. But in fact, the invertebrate status is a symptom of the party's fundamental contradiction: it's a party of business that has to pretend for electoral reasons that it's not. Related to that, it's getting harder to say what the party's core beliefs are. Republicans have a coherent philosophy--loopy and often terrifying, yes, but coherent--which they use to fire up an impassioned base. The Democrats can't risk getting their base too excited, lest it scare their funders.

In fact Malloy's top two campaign donors are Jonathan Sackler and Sackler's wife, Mary Corson. Sackler is a member of the board of directors of Purdue Pharma and a major proponent of charter schools in Connecticut. Of course, Sackler and Corson are going to want something for their money.

THE CEA's mistaken endorsement of an anti-union Democrat falls is not an isolated mistake in the labor movement. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), whose historic 2012 strike inspired and energized the U.S. labor movement, voted to endorse Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, whose running mate is former Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Paul Vallas, the poster boy for privatization and charter school schemes in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Haiti. Vallas was recently in charge of the school system in Bridgeport, Conn.--until he was forced out by a coalition of teachers and community members.

The strategy of lesser evilism has plagued the American labor movement for decades. It has played a part in the ineffective response to the employers' offensive that has created a steady decline in the unionization rate from a 1950s high of 35 percent to 11.3 percent of the total workforce, and only 6.7 percent in the private sector. Now, both Republicans and Democrats have set their sights on destroying public-sector unions, which still represent 35 percent of the workforce. This attack has been a bipartisan effort aimed mainly at teachers, the largest section of organized labor, but it extends to all public-sector workers.

The Democratic Party has been called "the graveyard of social movements" for a reason--because once you accept the idea that defeating the Republicans is the most important political strategy, you prioritize that over everything else. The result is that movements don't stand up when the attacks come from Democrats, as they already have and will continue to in the future.

By supporting politicians like Malloy, we are allowing the Republicans to move even further to the right and telling Malloy that there are no consequence for his attacks on us, so keep it up.

There is a third-party candidate who is running for governor, and who has been a vocal opponent of corporate education reform. Jonathan Pelto has used his Wait What? blog to challenge attacks on public education, and especially Malloy's participation in them.

Pelto himself served five terms in the state House starting in the 1980s, and he became a well-known figure in the state Democratic Party. But his challenge to Malloy today has been bitterly criticized by mainstream Democrats, who fear he could win a small but significant number of votes away from Malloy. Pelto didn't get enough signatures to get his name on the ballot in November, though he is still running as a write-in candidate.

Questions remain about what Pelto will represent as a third-party candidate--he has responded to some Democratic criticisms by insisting he is a "moderate," rather than a radical. But his campaign does give a glimpse of what would be possible if the CEA didn't reflexively hand its support to Democrats--and got behind an independent, pro-public education candidate, whose campaign could energize rank-and-file members and prepare the grounds for a stronger fight against whoever gets elected governor.

Those in the CEA leadership who understand the importance of organizing but still engage in lesser evilism--with the claim that unions aren't strong enough yet to pursue a strategy that doesn't include endorsing bad politicians--are continuing to postpone such independent organizing efforts. This position ultimately allows activists to kick the can down the road to some imaginary future, where we magically have the right level of organizational strength to put forward a real alternative. That future will never arrive if we don't start organizing for it now, on a principled political basis.

As the late historian Howard Zinn said, what matters most isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is "sitting in" and marching outside the White House. If social movements and workers aren't in motion, making demands on politicians and struggling from below, mainstream politics will be shaped by the pressure from above, by the demands and priorities of the wealthy and the education reform industry they promote.

If the CEA truly wants to wage the fight necessary to defeat the corporate education reform movement, we need to rescind the endorsement of Dannel Malloy and move completely into an organizing model of unionism. If the CEA leadership isn't willing to change course on its own then it will be up to the hundreds of rank-and-file teachers that have more recently emerged inside the CEA to put forward the ideas, politics and strategies we need to win.

A previous version of this article was published at the Wait What? blog.

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