It's either a brilliant tactical document or an astounding gaffe just as education reform is about to take center stage.
A PowerPoint presentation prepared by the American Federation of Teachers' Connecticut chapter for a recent national strategy meeting purports to show how the union in 2010 blocked the "parent trigger" proposal before the General Assembly. The bill would have handed parents the power to force the shutdown of a failing school - an extreme measure by any standard.
The PowerPoint surfaced briefly on an American Federation of Teachers website this week and was quickly seized upon by bloggers and national media, including The Wall Street Journal, which said it shows how the union "successfully undermines parental power in education."
The document is one influential player's view of how politics really works in Hartford. In the process the union did plenty of damage, insulting influential legislators and the rival Connecticut Education Association, as well as parent and education reform groups whose "toxic" views don't match union positions.
Actually, we owe the AFT a big thank-you for reminding the naive that behind the curtain wheeling-and-dealing is what matters - not what people do and say publicly.
This arrives as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has promised to devote much of the next session of the General Assembly to education reform. The AFT, just as it needs to show that it is working on behalf of teachers, parents and students, now fuels a perception that the union is devoted to its own, singular agenda.
"It is very cynical," said Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, a very influential legislative voice on education policy. "This is not about the AFT. Some of the players are making it about them."
"If I'm a parent who isn't very connected to the system, I look at this and I become jaded," Holder-Winfield said. The danger, he said, is that parents will see a legislature where "once the doors close you are not a part of it."
The takeaway here is that an inside player has admitted what cynics have long said - the real action is behind closed doors where powerful lobbyists call the shots. That's a big problem if Malloy and legislators are going to have the credibility to make painful changes to teacher tenure, seniority, compensation and how we train teachers.
The union's national leader, Randi Weingarten, has disavowed the PowerPoint, saying it didn't represent the AFT's views.
Sharon Palmer, president of AFT Connecticut, told me her union was doing what everyone does at the Capitol - advocating for its interests. Palmer, whose union deserves credit for leading efforts to find common ground with school reform groups, also acknowledged the PowerPoint went too far.
"Some of the things in the PowerPoint shouldn't have been there," she said. "It just got distorted. It's not what we are about to anyone who knows us."
The PowerPoint, presented at a recent national AFT meeting, was intended to show how the union blocked a damaging piece of legislation that it said really was about handing "charter school advocates" the chance to "create support for new charter schools." The union views charter schools, which can operate free from union rules, as a major threat.
By aggressively lobbying influential legislators behind the scenes while also reaching out to school reform groups that supported the parent trigger legislation, the union took credit for changing the bill. Holder-Winfield and education committee co-Chair Andrew Fleischmann said the union had nothing to do with changes made to the bill.
"The AFT does not have the kind of influence it claims," said Fleischmann. In the PowerPoint, the union gloats that it was good "karma" that Fleischmann - whom the union publicly supports - lost his bid to become House majority leader. "It doesn't help their credibility."
Fleischmann said the union had made a "complete and utter misrepresentation" of how the legislature handled the parent trigger bill. "It's a document from the teachers union and it has a gross misspelling on the cover page," Fleischmann said. (The presentation is titled "How Connecticut Diffused The Parent Trigger.")
Next year, groups with "very different views" will take up controversial education reform proposals, Fleischmann said. The union "can't walk into the room thinking that other people's views are toxic. ... All of them are genuinely concerned about improving education."
At least we know where the AFT stands and what it will do when the time comes to tackle controversial reforms. Those with conflicting ideas or views had better come prepared.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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