The Corner

Teacher Union Feels Heat Over Leaked Report

Parents are outraged over news that a lobbyist for the American Federation of Teachers bragged about watering down an education-reform bill at the AFT’s national conference last month.

In 2010, education activists asked Connecticut’s legislature to adopt a parent-trigger law similar to one proposed in California the year before. Under the proposed legislation, if a school failed to achieve “adequate yearly progress” in its test scores — as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act — three years in a row, parents in the district could force the school to hire new management if a majority signed a petition.

At the AFT’s national conference last month, a lobbyist for the union described the state chapter’s successful efforts to weaken the legislation in a presentation entitled, “How Connecticut Diffused [sic] the Parent Trigger.” In it, the lobbyist recounted how the AFT initially tried to “kill the bill” but later decided to “engage the opposition” to mitigate its effect.

In the slides, the lobbyist noted that the AFT dragged the Connecticut Education Association “kicking and screaming” into line and that “parent trigger advocates . . . were not at the table.”

Eventually, legislators settled on a measure that set up “school governance councils” on which parents would hold most of the seats but which had only “authority to recommend reconstitution in [the] third year of poor performance.”

Also among the slides, first reported by Dropout Nation, was the lobbyist’s reminder that “school governance council” “is a misnomer.” “They are advisory and do not have true governing authority,” the slide reassured its readers.

RiShawn Biddle, editor of Dropout Nation, says the slides are nothing new. “The AFT has spent the past few years putting out the idea that it’s more reform-minded than its sister union the NEA,” he says. “But when it comes down to it, it’s really more triangulation than substance.”

For its part, the AFT has taken the PowerPoint off its website. John See, a spokesman for the union, writes in a statement:

We received complaints about the PowerPoint, and, after reviewing it, took it down because it didn’t reflect our work. The truth is that we created an avenue for parents in Connecticut to become involved in their children’s school. As a result, parent councils are being formed all over the state, which will lead to better schools. We are proud that we were involved in passing this law and believe it will serve as a model for other states.

Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, is miffed by the union’s behavior. She remembers the contentious legislative process last year: “Teachers were attacking parents, calling us inmates trying to take over the asylum.” She says she has more respect for the CEA, which merely opposed the measure, than for the AFT, which acted as if it was willing to compromise and which has “this hidden agenda of ‘we’re going to get you.’”

What’s sad, in Samuel’s opinion, is the political price supporters paid. When Samuel first proposed this legislation to state representative Jason Bartlett, who became the bill’s chief proponent in the legislature, he asked her, “Do you just want me to lose my career?” It was a telling question, Samuel says, because Bartlett lost reelection a few months afterward. In the slides, the AFT lobbyist dubbed Bartlett’s loss “karma.”

But Paul Wessel, executive director of Connecticut Parent Power, thinks the AFT’s behavior isn’t anything out of the ordinary. “I think that the reality was far less nefarious and conspiratorial,” he says.

State representative Sean Williams, however, says that for the AFT, strong-arm tactics are par for the course. “This a complete slap in the face of every child and parent involved in a failing public school in urban areas,” Williams argues. “What it proves is their arrogance and bullying ways are starting to be exposed and every day they make the case for reasonable collective-bargaining reforms.”

Samuel, meanwhile, plans to keep fighting the unions tooth and nail. “I believe in collaboration,” she says. “But at this point, since you don’t want to play fair, I would rather get as much power to help my child till he graduates.” Indeed, she warns the union that she will not rest till she gets “a real trigger that’s not as ‘collaborative.’”

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