I was excited. This was going to be it. I was finally going to proudly stand with Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and Lily Eskelson Garcia of the National Education Association in the fight for equity. We were finally going to find ourselves standing firmly, together, on that ever so elusive surface known as common ground. We were going to be on the same team.
But our love affair has ended before it even began.
Turns out the concern around poverty that both women (often rightly) raise isn’t as etched in stone as perhaps we all thought. Based on their comments over the years, I assumed that the fight for equity in funding for our poorest children was something for which they’d do battle with the Lamar Alexanders (R) and Sheldon Whitehouses (D) of the world.
I was wrong.
It seems that equity and fairness are only important sometimes. There is no other explanation for their deliberate choice to run from the hard conversation that would push people (including their members) out of their comfort zones in pursuit of funding equity for poor students in poor schools. The hard conversation that our Secretary of Education, John King, is rightly forcing us to have.
This whole, “oops, well, I didn’t mean I support that kind of equity” isn’t new. We saw it during accountability debates over ESSA when they again chose to be on the opposite side of civil rights groups. They were more comfortable with vulnerable groups of students becoming invisible (again!) than they were with kids taking an annual test.
And here we are again, this time in a debate around Title 1 and fair funding (known to the wonks in the biz as “supplement v supplant”), and they have chosen the path of least resistance. Rather than stay true to their recurring claims that more funding is what’s needed to mitigate poverty, they’ve made the calculation that protecting jobs in the suburbs is, in fact, more important.
Their greatest hits this time around
Lily Eskelson Garcia moved the furthest from her usual talking points and did a total flip-flop on funding during her testimony:
“The dollars are important. But you also have to say, how creative can I be in creating more student support?”
Wait, what the what?! Isn’t that what Eric Hanushek has been saying forever?
Randi’s wow comments reflect an apparent total change of heart over who should control staffing decisions in school districts:
Will schools have the latitude to make staffing decisions—like how many experienced teachers they retain or how many new teachers they hire—based on their own needs? Or will federal policy force the leveling down of funding, so some schools face budget cuts that compel them to make no-win choices about which teachers to keep or hire?
Since when does Randi Weingarten think staffing decisions should be made based on anything other than seniority? It is preposterous (and kind of gross) that someone who has stood as firmly in favor as LIFO (Last In, First Out) would utter these words because all of a sudden, they are convenient for her and serve the purpose of pushing back against funding poor schools at the same level that we fund non-poor schools.
The depressing and undeniable truth is that this is all part of a historical pattern of union leaders passing the buck on hard decisions. On layoffs, they’re not willing to say that performance should matter; they just say layoffs shouldn’t happen. On pensions, they aren’t willing to support changing the current system even though we know it is neither feasible nor sustainable; they just say states have to step up and bail out all of the funds. And on inequitable funding, they won’t say poor kids deserve a greater share of the pie and thus wealthier schools should make do with less than the windfall they’re getting; they just say everybody should get more money.
That’s their answer. More resources, no matter how limited resources are. This default position doesn’t only enable them to avoid making tough decisions; it also allows them to position themselves against any leader at any time. It’s their “get out of the argument free” card except that it’s not free. It’s incredibly costly to kids, families, taxpayers, and the economy at large.
Perhaps most self serving, it allows for them to to enjoy the title of “leader” without actually leading at all. Leaders lean into the hard conversations and make the tough calls. Neither Randi or Lily has chosen to do that.
So there you have it.
Liz King of the Leadership Council for Human and Civil Rights asked a very simple question during all of this:
“When is it ever OK to spend less money on the education of poor children than we spend on the education of non-poor children?”
And both Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelson Garcia have answered the question in one word. “Now“.
John King has answered it too, with the word “never.”