“Will the last teacher to leave West Virginia please turn out the lights?”

“Will the last teacher to leave West Virginia please turn out the lights?”

Nearly 30 years ago, one of my teachers held that very handwritten sign. She, along with my mother and dozens of other educators from my high school were picketing in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia as part of a statewide teachers strike. The sign became iconic, running on the front page of newspapers across the state and the nation.

In 1990, those teachers were striking because of poor teacher benefits and worse pay. West Virginia was paying its public school educators less than 48 other states. The situation became so bad that unions in all 55 counties in the state organized a work stoppage. After two weeks, a true-blue legislature and a Democratic governor finally saw things the way those teachers wanted them to. Benefits were improved, and West Virginia committed to raising teacher salaries to the middle of the pack when it came to state averages.

Fast forward to 2018, and we are seeing the same scenario play out in a state that has largely become a microcosm for America. The state is gripped by opioids. The jobs of the old, industrial economy are drying up. West Virginia’s legislature is now shockingly red. The state is now led by a Republican governor (though one who was just elected as a Democrat in 2016). But again, West Virginia’s teachers are almost the lowest paid in the nation.

Currently, the minimum salary for a public school teacher in West Virginia is $26,000. To put more simply, if one accounts just for student days – overlooking required teacher work days, evenings, weekends, summers, and all of the other times teachers actually work – the minimum teacher salary is about $14 an hour. Or about what teachers in the Northern Panhandle would make in Pittsburgh or those in the Eastern Panhandle would make in the DC suburbs if they gave up teaching and became baristas at Starbuck’s.

During the 1990 strike, I was all too aware that teachers in my high school needed to hold second jobs in order to make ends meet. It was a frequent sight to see a teacher working as a bartender or waiter at a local restaurant or as a desk clerk at one of the nearby motels. During the strike, it would have been very easy for these teachers to turn to their second jobs, pick up additional hours, and ensure that they would make the rent or car payments that week. But they didn’t. Each and every day, they were out there on the picket lines. They were marching for their profession. And they were ensuring the entire community saw them.

That year, those teachers won because they had public support. Yes, the closure of schools is always an inconvenience for families in the community. But each day, parents and children brought the teachers water and soda and food. Neighbors honked their car horns in support. And even when the handful of teachers who refused to strike told students their records would be noted and student activities would be pulled if we failed to cross the picket line, not one student went into the schools during those weeks.

Fast forward to 2018, and we see a different story. The state legislature is now advancing a package for teachers that would boost teacher pay by about 4 percent over the next several years, far from the jump their fellow educators saw three decades ago. Public support for union strikes, even in strong union states like West Virginia, is not nearly as strong as it once was. And with the Supreme Court now considering the Janus case, labor unions and their memberships are likely to be weakened even more.

It’s quite sad that, at a time when we all recognize that a strong education is key to success in the digital, information economy, we still have to fight to ensure that educators are paid like the high-stakes professionals that they are. It is sadder that we, as a nation, are now talking about bonuses to teachers who come into the classroom armed, but still can’t pay many of them a living wage. And it is even sadder when teachers need to technically break the law and engage in a statewide work stoppage to gain the respect and recognition that they well deserve.

As a child, I romanticized my grandfather and his Teamsters jacket. I imagined he received it as a reward for backing Jimmy Hoffa and his agenda to play rough with short-haul trucking companies. To me, the Teamsters were a true union’s union.

Then I watched my mom and many of my high school teachers walk the picket lines, putting their livelihoods on the line. I saw them walking for what they believed in. And I saw the community stand behind them. I saw that light. So did many others.

Today is school day number four of the 2018 West Virginia teachers strike, and the request asked 28 years ago may still be pertinent. WV Gov. Jim Justice and the legislature will see that light too, and show teachers across the state the respect they deserve.  Otherwise, they may indeed be turning off the lights for West Virginia’s students.

Come at the King …

In King Lear, Shakespeare famously wrote, “come at the king, you best not miss.” For those not as familiar with the Bard, it is also a quote many today will attribute to Omar from The Wire. Most, particularly those in politics, know that when you come after the top dog, you better be successful … or suffer the consequences.

That may be a very hard lesson that the New Jersey Education Association is soon to learn. For those who hadn’t been paying attention to legislative races in the Garden State, the state’s largest teachers union decided to set its sites this fall on the Senate President. The Democratic Senate President, Steve Sweeney. And the NJEA did so by pouring millions — at least $5 million reported before election day — into Sweeney’s Republican, Trump-loving opponent.

Why, one may ask, did the teachers union decide to take on the (at the time) most powerful Democrat in the state, a Democrat with strong backing from labor unions across Jersey? By most accounts, it had to do with pensions and Sweeney’s decision to side with his constituents and not back a constitutional amendment guaranteeing increased pension payments by the state. Some might also point to Sweeney’s willingness to be open to the idea of charter schools, particularly in the struggling communities of South Jersey.

All told, the Sweeney Senate race is likely to be the most expensive state legislative race in history. Some say the total spending will exceed $20 million when all is said and done. Much of that was money Sweeney had to use to defend himself, dollars that he otherwise would have raised to help other Democrats win Assembly and Senate seats at a time when Democrats were taking back the governor’s mansion for the first time in nearly a decade.

When the dust settled Tuesday night, the most powerful Democrat in New Jersey (and Sweeney may just retain that title even after Gov.-elect Phil Murphy is sworn in in January) won his state senate re-election campaign by 18 points, defeating the Trump/Chris Christie protege — and darling of the NJEA — by 18 points.

The big question is, what comes next? In the rough and tumble world of Jersey politics, it is hard to see Sweeney giving the NJEA an “attaboy” and congratulating it for sticking to their beliefs and doing what they thought was best for its members. While Sweeney has always been a friend of the teachers — and even had the AFT come into the state and campaign with him to mitigate the NJEA attacks — it is hard to see a world where Sweeney now becomes besties with the NJEA, even if the NJEA is now on the top of the “must call list” for the incoming governor.

The NJEA decided to come at the king, and they missed. No one doubts that Gov.-elect Murphy has made a list of promises to the NJEA as part of his march to the big desk. And Murphy will need to make good on those promises, helping move the NJEA’s agenda forward in a state when the governor’s office burned NJEA requests on sight for nearly a decade. But we are fooling ourselves if we think the Senate President is going to just go along with every one of those requests because a Democratic politician asks for it, even if that politician is a Democrat governor elected by 13 points in a blue state.

Successful politicians like Sweeney don’t get where they are, and don’t hold onto where they got, by rolling over and showing a soft underbelly. Sweeney is all too aware of who his friends are, who helped him win re-election, and who needlessly forced him to spend millions of dollars that could have been more wisely spent increasing his majority in the State Senate. He may not proactively seek retribution in the upcoming legislative session, but he will not forget. Nor should he. Progressives may rejoice about their collective successes on election day, but when they turn on dependable Democrat voices like Sweeney — and back conservative Trumpites to play single-issue politics — it is a dangerous gambit that places politics ahead of policy.

Nothing will get through the New Jersey Legislature, no matter how strongly it is endorsed by the incoming governor, that the powerful Senate President doesn’t want. The NJEA came at the king, and it missed. As a result, the union — and its members — may have to pay the price. That’s politics, particularly Jersey politics. And it will likely be a very expensive lesson for the New Jersey Education Association.

 

Don’t Buy Those Farewell EdSec Cards Just Yet …

For the past week or so, social media has been all a-twitter (sorry, I just couldn’t help myself) with rumors of the demise of the Betsy DeVos administration. Far too many people have been sharing news stories from shady fake-news sites declaring EdSec DeVos was leaving the Trump Adminustration, was being pushed out of the Trump Administration, and was generally being cast aside.

Yes, some of these shares were from people I know who post anything anti-Trump, truth be damned. But even respected voices like the AFT’s Randi Weingarten shared the information with the screamer, “breaking news!”

Many of those questionable news sites sourced the rumor back to the respected publication Politico. Such citation gave the whispers even greater respectability. And it forced Politico to share the following with its readers this morning:

VIA POLITICO’S MORNING EDUCATION: Articles are making the rounds online that cite a POLITICO Magazine profile of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and claim that education “officials” expect her to step down. That is NOT what the POLITICO article said, and there’s no reason to believe DeVos is on her way out. What the POLITICO article, written by Tim Alberta, did say: “Anyone betting against DeVos serving all four years of Trump’s first term – which, she tells me, she plans to do – is underestimating the sense of duty and moral righteousness deeply embedded in someone who could be doing just about anything else right now.”

The false reports have gained traction. Randi Weingarten, the American Federation of Teachers president, who is a constant DeVos critic, tweeted one, calling it “breaking news.” The posts appear to be built around a single quote in the POLITICO profile. Thomas Toch, the director of FutureEd, an independent education think tank at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy – not an education “official,” as many of the posts claim – said in the POLITICO piece that “in Washington education circles, the conversation is already about the post-DeVos landscape, because the assumption is she won’t stay long. …” Toch took to Twitter to clear the record: “Was tallying DeVos odds in @politico, not suggesting her plane’s idling at National with a flight plan to Michigan. I give her a year.”

Despite what we may think, wanting something to be true isn’t proof of its veracity. As long as President Trump has faith in his EdSec, Betsy DeVos isn’t likely going anywhere. As long as the EdSec believes she can have impact, she isn’t likely vacating the top floor of Maryland Avenue.

 

Moving On From Latest Charter School Showdown

The dust is finally settling on the latest showdown between EdSec Betsy DeVos and AFT President Randi Weingarten on charter schools, their history, and their potential. The rhetoric earlier this month got ugly. But it can provide a real opportunity to look at school choice in a meaningful way … and to use charter schools as a channel for driving school improvement on the whole. Sorta like what was conceived decades ago (and supported by Weingarten predecessor Al Shanker). 

We explore the dust up and the potential on the latest edition of #TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen. 

Some PR Advice for the EdSec

It’s been four months since the start of the Trump Administration. Three months since EdSec Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing. Yet most are still waiting for DeVos to take control of the ED bully pulpit like her predecessors did. And waiting. And waiting.

Over at the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, Michael Petrilli offers some advice from PR pros on how DeVos could, or should, up her comms game. There are some valuable thoughts there. Then there are some insights offered by yours truly. You may be right, Eduflack may be cray-cray. But I do think it would be a master stroke to have DeVos ask Randi Weingarten if she can address the full AFT at its summer gathering. 

Give the full article a read. You won’t be disappointed.

I Don’t Have to Like You, But …

It’s very easy for the two sides in public education to just hurl attacks, virtriol, and brickbats day after day after day. School improvement discussion have devolved into hand-to-hand combat, with each side trying to best the other … consequences be damned.

Despite all of this fighting, last month EdSec Betsy DeVos and AFT President Randi Weingarten found the time to come together and actually spend time with each other in the same school at the same time. No, we shouldn’t expect a major sea change or detente to come out of the Ohio visit, but maybe, just maybe, it can provide some guidance on how we can look to collaborate more and shout a little less.
I’ve been fortunate to work on both sides of the debate. What has always surprised me was how the two sides actually have far more in common than in disagreement. Sure, we will focus on the areas of departure, but we can use those places of commonality to try to and work together. On the latest episode of TrumpED on BAM! Radio Network, I applaud both DeVos and Weingarten for at least giving it a try. Give it a collegial listen!
 

DeVos, the Teachers Unions, and Political Cartoonists

While not endorsing the message of the below cartoon, Eduflack was fascinated by the following piece that appeared in the Tampa Times last week (the newspaper of record for Eduflack’s parents during winter time). 

I recognize that far too many people are looking to sources like Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show for their news these days. But what was most interesting was that the DeVos confirmation rose to the level of a syndicated political cartoon (particularly one distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group) and that the cartoon would differ so strongly from the editorial content that the Post was publishing on the same topic. 

Any sightings of this in other newspapers? If so, please share.