I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What "Reformers" Really Want

This video of corporate reformer Jonah Edelman has been causing a stir in the edu-blogosphere this weekend. You may not want to watch the whole thing (it's down below), as it gets into the weeds of a specific political fight taking place in Illinois over "Senate Bill 7," but it is instructive for a larger reason. Here's a breakdown:

Edelman's group, Stand for Children (these guys really have no shame, do they?), outlines why SB7 is the greatest thing for kids since the polio vaccine. It's the same old reformy pap: "... teacher effectiveness is the number one in-school factor determining student learning..." is always a clue that you're in for the same old "reforms." Test scores for evaluations, gutting tenure, principals getting more say in hiring... and, of course, lots of tests, tests, tests!

What's fascinating here is the ruthlessness and self-regard that Edelman evinces. Basically, when the Democrats in Illinois decided to screw teachers out of their pensions, the unions decided to withhold support. In jumped Edelman, in pure Shock Doctrine fashion, to use the state's fiscal problems as an excuse to push his corporate reform agenda (an agenda, by the way, that shows no evidence of working to solve a problem no one has shown to exist).

Edelman sized up the Illinois political scene and decided to bet on the Democratic side, filling up their coffers with cash that was missing now that the unions had withheld their support. Edelman admits the objective was to tilt power in the Illinois legislature toward long-time House Speaker Michael Madigan. The payoff? SB7.

As the bill was working its way through the legislature, Edelman hired many veteran lobbyists, with the expressed purpose of not making them available to the unions. He also put together nearly $3 million, most of which would evade caps on campaign contributions that were being implemented.

After some setbacks, Edelman brought other politicians on board, including the newly-elected Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel. He split the Chicago and downstate teachers unions, and got SB7 passed.

But SB7 had one additional feature: "reform" of collective bargaining. As Edelman says, SB7 essentially lets school boards have the final say on disputed issues at impasse. If teachers opt to go on strike, 75% of the members must agree, rather than a simple majority - effectively, strikes are banned, as the threshold is so high.

In the video, Edelman smarmily basks in his own greatness as he explains how he managed to get the unions to agree to this, even as he was convinced they didn't understand what they were agreeing to. He even admits that he fudged the bill so the union leadership could "save face."

What's the upshot? According to Edelman, the ultimate goal is to lengthen the school day and school year in Chicago without the encumbrance of negotiation with the union; essentially, he's going to get more work out of the teachers without having to pay them. In addition, principals now get to hire and fire pretty much at will, destroying a key provision that keeps teaching jobs from turning into crony jobs. This on top of losing seniority protections, losing tenure, and tests, tests, tests!

I've watched the video a couple of time now, and my first takeaway of this whole affair is that Edelman suffers from the same malady as so many others in the corporate reform movement: he is an insufferably smug little prick. Born and bred as a Washington insider with famous, well-connected parents; all the "right" schools (Yale, Oxford); lots of connections to the right people...

May I be so impolite as to point out this self-satisfied jerk never spent a day in front of a class in his life? He revels in his ability to outfox teachers unions, but he's never put himself in a position where he might need their help. He talks about the gutting of teacher pensions and the loss of their collective bargaining rights and making them work longer for less money as if that's a triumph for children; he doesn't much seem to have a care for whether or not that will help the morale of teachers.

That is, of course, the game these guys play: "We're putting the children first!" Because apparently children learn much better when their teachers are treated like crap.

I've been doing this long enough to detect certain patterns. One near certainty is that corporate reform tools like Edelman always have a group of sugar daddies to fund their little adventures. Sure enough...
An out-of-state education reform group raised a whopping $2.8 million in the days leading up to historic state caps on campaign contributions. 

All of the money raised by Stand for Children’s Illinois PAC came in five- or six-figure contributions from some very major Chicago-area business types. Members of the famed billionaire Pritzker family kicked in a total of $250,000 on Dec. 29, two days before the end of the old campaign finance system, which allowed for unlimited contributions to groups like Stand for Children’s PAC.

Ken Griffin, the CEO of the Citadel Group, contributed $500,000 on Dec. 15. Griffin gave hundreds of thousands of dollars last year to Illinois House Republicans and GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Brady’s campaign. Sam Zell, the owner of Tribune Co., contributed $100,000 on Dec. 20. Members of the Henry Crown family kicked in $400,000. And Paul Finnegan, the co-CEO of Madison Dearborn Partners LLC, contributed $500,000. 

The group’s political action committee made history last year with the single largest non-leadership contribution in modern Illinois times – a $175,000 check to Republican state House candidate Ryan Higgins, who ended up losing his race. The PAC contributed a total of $610,000 during the fall campaign to legislative candidates in both parties. 
Any time a corporate tool like Edelman tells you he heads a "grass-roots" movement, look for Astroturf. But who are these solid citizens who could have given money to all sorts of causes, but instead decided to back a movement that wants to gut public employee protections and force teachers to work more hours for less money?

You get the point: a lot of rich people are funding folks like Edelman on their crusade to do... what? Gut tenure? Remove protections that keep public jobs from becoming crony jobs? Impose a daunting regime of testing on children? Get rid of collective bargaining? Slash teacher benefits?

If Edelman actually cared about children and learning, he'd look at the overwhelming data that shows that income inequity is destroying our society. And then he'd turn to his corporate masters and demand that they start paying their fair share of taxes, and that we start guaranteeing that all children get decent health care and economic opportunity.

Instead, he points the finger exclusively at teachers and their unions. He revels in playing the games of politics while he demeans and destroys a profession that he simultaneously says is critically important. 

How these people sleep at night, I have no idea. But they need to be exposed and discredited. Praise be that this video came out - the more insights into this seamy world of power, privilege, and condescension, the better.


avalonsensei said...

Brilliant deconstruction. Am sharing with UTLA in Los Angeles.

Duke said...

sensei, you folks in CA are really up against it. At least you have a guv who isn't a total schmuck.

caroline said...

I transcribed the key 14-plus minutes of Edelman's commentary, in case it's useful to anyone:


Duke said...

Caroline, that's great thx.