Monday, January 6, 2014

The strange bedfellows of the education reform movement

Mercedes Schneider has a post that beautifully illustrates some of the complexities and contradictions of the reform movement using the example of this big-budget campaign:
On December 10, 2013, the Center for Union Facts (CUF) (don’t believe the name) sponsored a full-page ad in the New York Times attributing the “high school slip in global rankings” to a single issue: The failure of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to promote merit pay for teachers.

The ad reads,

We have fallen behind Latvia, Estonia, and Vietnam in science and math. The teachers union continues to protect incompetent teachers and refuses to reward outstanding teachers with merit-based pay. Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, fights against reforms that would help fix our failing schools.
Later in the post, Schneider provides some background on CUF:
The Center for Union Facts is one of five nonprofit “front groups” run by lobbyist Rick Berman of Berman and Company:

American Beverage Institute

Center for Consumer Freedom

Center for Union Facts

Employment Policies Institute Foundation

Enterprise Freedom Action Committee

These “front groups” offer mission statements that disguise the agenda of hidden supporters. CUF is Berman’s front for union bashing.
(Schneider's follow-up is also worth checking out.)

For more on Berman, here are the first few lines of his Wikipedia page:
Richard B. Berman (born 1942) is a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer, public relations executive, and lobbyist. Through his public affairs firm Berman and Company, Berman runs several industry-funded non-profit organizations such as the Center for Consumer Freedom[1] and the Center for Union Facts.[2] Berman's organizations have run numerous media campaigns on the issues of obesity, smoking, mad cow disease, taxes, the national debt, drinking and driving, as well as the minimum wage.[3][4][5] 60 Minutes has called him "the booze and food industries' weapon of mass destruction,"[4] labor union activist Richard Bensinger gave him the nickname "Dr. Evil,"[3][4] and Michael Kranish of the Boston Globe has dubbed him a “pioneer” in the “realm of opinion molding.”[6]

In September 2013, the Huffington Post included Berman on its “list of the 20 most influential members of the power elite.[7]

Just to be clear, most people in the reform movement are motivated by a sincere desire to improve education, particularly among the disadvantaged, but that doesn't mean we can dismiss the influence of groups with other agendas. There is no part of the movement that has not gotten significant support from some group hostile to unions (such as the Walton family) and, because of the highly interconnected social structure of the movement and the lack of firewalls, almost every major player in the movement is at best one or two degrees of separation from an anti-union activist (for example, David Coleman, the father of the Common Core initiative, was a founding member on the board of Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst, which is pretty ground zero for the anti-labor wing of the movement).

This doesn't mean that we should look at most movement initiatives as covert attempts at union busting; that's not how influence works. Very seldom do you buy people outright. Instead you generally plant a bias that's subtle enough to go unnoticed by those affected. People like Jonathan Chait are not anti-labor but they've been nudged into some extremely anti-labor positions and have generally remained unaware of the process.

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