Friday, January 16, 2015

Not So Free To Teach

Like many teachers, I get the occasional thoughtful invitation from my buddy Matt Eason at Free To Teach, an organization that clearly has my interests at heart. Let's start peeling this onion, shall we?

Layer One: A Concerned Teacher-Activist

I’m proud to be a public school educator of 17 years. But I am not proud that teachers don’t have a choice when it comes to whom they give their money. 

You can see where this is going (spoiler: it's those damn unions). Now, for those of you who are exceptionally cynical, I'll point out that Matt Eason appears to be a real teacher who works in a real district. Eason is in Avon Grove schools, located a bit southwest of Philly. A non-union teacher, he seems to have gotten in a bit of a tiff with the district back in 2013 when it turned out they had quietly approved Fair Share and PACE deductions in a new contract (oddly enough, Eason had seventeen years of teaching in 2013, and that's still what he has as of the last email he sent me).

Outside of our schools, no one would just give their money willingly for any political purpose without knowing how it is being used.  This has to be stopped. Teachers deserve more accountability. That’s why I’ve supported legislation called “paycheck protection,” which would end the practice of school districts deducting the union’s political money straight from our paychecks at taxpayer expense.
Fair Share is of course the provision that teachers in a district should shoulder some of the cost of operating the union even if they don't belong. PACE is the political action wing of the Pennsylvania State Education Association. Eason didn't care for any of those things, and to be perfectly honest, I have my own conflicted feelings about Fair Share. On the one hand, teachers benefit from the union whether they belong for it or not, and it seems cheap to ride coattails. On the other hand, this is America and if you don't want to join things, you shouldn't have to. I think Fair Share also hurts all of us in the union because it gives the state and national levels one less reason to actually pay attention to us (they'll get a chunk of our money, anyway). I could totally live with a system in which teachers don't have to belong, but then they also get to negotiate their own personal contracts with the district, and the district has no obligation to pay them as well as anyone else.

Nor am I going to speak up for PACE, which has a great track record of collecting money from teachers to help support the election of politicians who then kick teachers in the face. 
All that said, Eason seems to have some points scrambled. It's not clear to me how the union dues deduction involves "taxpayer expense," and as far as I know, the only way to contribute to PACE is voluntarily.

But perhaps we can learn more by looking at the group Eason represents, Free to Teach.

Layer Two: A Teacher Advocacy Group

Free To Teach has a slick-nifty website decked in a kind of well-designed country chic. Their slogan is "Politicians and union leaders have spoken. It's time they heard from teachers." They even have a teacher's bill of rights. Actually, just five rights. Here they are:

1) "The right to associate professionally as I choose, without being forced to contribute financially to any organization I do not support." This is a mighty fine right, also popular with people who choose to pay just some or none of their taxes.

2) "The right to be rewarded as a professional based on my job performance." Oh, honey. Can I put this next to my right to be given a Lexus because I'm a decent fellow? The implication here, as always, is that school districts are just dying to give super-duper pay to a handful of extraordinary teachers, but the damn union is holding them back. It shows a charming excess of faith in the system and an equally charming believe in the speaker's own awesomeness. Personally, I am quite sure that Sofia Vergara wants to seduce me away from my wife with incredibly hot sex, but a secret conspiracy is keeping her from doing it.

3) "The right to protect my paycheck and not be forced to fund political views I oppose." Once again, a great anti-income tax argument.

4) "The right to have flexibility to meet the learning needs of students regardless of the job action stipulations by the union." I'm not really sure which imaginary situation this is trying to remedy. My principal wanted to assign me to a job I'm not certified to do, but the damn union stopped him? I was dying to donate twenty extra teaching hours a week to the district, but the damn union stopped me?

5) "The right to be employed based on merit, not just years of experience." And again, the suggestion that employers are dying to do the right thing, but those damned unions are stopping them. When Sofia finally gets to me, I plan to tell her all about this.

It all comes from the crazypants world of Right To Work. It's the union that's holding you back! Employers wanted to give you a thirty hour work week and a massive raise, but the unions forced us to have a forty hour week with a minimum wage. So why does this teacher advocacy site sound so much like an anti-labor corporate one? Oh wait-- what's this down at the bottom of the page?

Layer Three: Right Wing Faux Thinky Tank

"A project of Commonwealth Foundation."

The Commonwealth Foundation website is, I kid you not, blocked by my school's firewall as spam. The Foundation bills itself as a think tank, but as someone who has been reading a lot of thinky tank material, I have to say there doesn't seem to be a lot of thinking in this tank. Right now there's a big article claiming the Governor Wolf of PA has a conflict of issue problem because he took campaign contributions from the government worker unions, with whom he will soon be entering contracts. Please remember this complaint, because further down the page it will turn out to be hilarious.

Digging about turns up other articles like- oh look! One about how objectionable it is that dues are withheld from teacher paychecks at government expense. That sounds... familiar.

A post from today mocks objections to more charters in Philly; these guys say the objections are because the charters will be "too popular." Marcellus shale is bringing prosperity to PA. Obama is a big failure. Oh, and an article complaining that a PAC that was active in the defeat of Tom Corbett is funded by shadowy figures who are not accountable, including unions. Remember this complaint, too.

And-- there's no end to this-- they are also busily supporting "Mary's Law," based on the case of an unhappy PSEA member who doesn't like how her dues are used. Their argument, once again, is that somehow public resources are being used to withhold money from teacher. Or maybe their argument is that teacher pay is made out of public resources. Either way, their bottom line is "Public resources should never be used for politics." This leads to a section where they discuss how charters and cyberschools use tax dollars to advertise and lobby for their businesses. Ha ha! Of course not. This heinous crime is only committed by unions.

As I said-- I've read lots of think tanks. An outfit like the Fordham produces ideas and arguments, often backed up with actual facts, and while I generally think they miss the mark, there are clearly signs that somebody is thinking. But these guys-- this is just a political spin group, no more a think tank than Fox News.

Commonwealth Foundation says that it "crafts free-market policies, convinces Pennsylvanians of their benefits, and counters attacks on liberty." Sourcewatch, however, says that the group "is a right-wing pressure group based in Pennsylvania that calls itself a 'think tank.'"

What else does Sourcewatch say about these guys?

Level Four: What?! These guys again?!

Sourcewatch has connected Commonwealth Foundation to something called the State Policy Network, a network of about sixty-four right-wing so-called thinky tanks across the country. These guys have allegedly fostered a little state-sized network of Baby Heritage Groups. They have a history supposedly going back to the Reagan era.

If you want to read more about these guys, you can go to the Center for Media and Democracy's "EXPOSED: The State Policy Network -- The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government" or this piece from Pullitzer-nominated Jane Mayer from the New Yorker, "Is IKEA the New Model for the Conservative Movement?"

There's a lot of good reportage in those, including Mayer's account of SPN who reportedly said in a meeting of SPN folks

... that SPN "would provide 'the raw materials,' along with the 'services' needed to assemble the products. Rather than acting like passive customers who buy finished products, she wanted each state group to show the enterprise and creativity needed to assemble the parts in their home states. 'Pick what you need,' she said, 'and customize it for what works best for you.'" Not only that, but Sharp "also acknowledged privately to the members that the organization's often anonymous donors frequently shape the agenda. 'The grants are driven by donor intent,' she told the gathered think-tank heads. She added that, often, 'the donors have a very specific idea of what they want to happen.'

Coming up with legislation-to-order should ring a few bells, and yes, indeedy, it turns out via Sourcewatch that SPN is tied directly and closely to ALEC.

It's hard to know exactly who is behind SPN because (remember that one hilarious thing I told you to remember?) much of its money is donated via DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, two funds that exist specifically to let people donate money anonymously so that they can remain shadowy and unaccountable to anyone.

Not that everybody remains shadowy. Sourcewatch lists some specific donors, including the Allegheny Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and (you knew this was coming) the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. Yes, here's the other hilarious thing I told you to remember-- the organization that is shocked-- shocked!-- by the notion that someone might contribute to a politician's campaign and then seek influence over policies that affect that donor, is funded by Koch money, money that has never traveled anywhere without the intention of influencing policy.

That's Some Onion

And so, sadly, we must conclude that Matt Eason, who is a real person and probably has some real concerns for real reasons, is ultimately being used as a sock puppet by ALEC and the Kochs and other unknowable folks whose goal remains the same-old same-old ruination and sweeping aside of unions as a political force and as a voice for individual teachers.

So thank you for your concern, but I'm pretty sure that the biggest obstacles to my freedom to teach do not lie amidst my brothers and sisters in the classrooms next to mine. My union is far from perfect, and you need only read through the contents of this blog to find me saying hard things about them. But if I'm huddling in a ramshackle house in a driving storm of wind and rain being bombarded by missiles and cannonballs, my best choice moving forward is not to burn down the house and count on the people firing the weaponry to keep me safe.


  1. I live in a RTW state. I dream of being Free to Teach in a unionized state like PA (where I was born and raised)! Please let Free to Teach know that he is free to come be exploited in my district any time, so long as I can be free to be exploited by the union in PA.

  2. When this Paycheck Deception legislation started floating around visibly a couple of years ago, I called the PA State System of Higher Ed (the body that supervises the 14 public universities--I'm a faculty member at West Chester) because I wanted to know, as a budget line item, how much it costs PASSHE to do our union deductions. Of course nobody has a clue (over the course of about 3 hours, I spoke to new fewer than 18 people, not one of whom had any idea how to find this out).

    What we do know, however, is that those deductions don't cost one tiny cent more than a zillion other payroll deductions that nobody complains about--deductions for charities, insurance, retirement plans (even the private ones, you pension hawks!).

    And finally, the claim that auto-deductions go to political purposes is an actual, no-holds-barred lie. Unions document every penny they collect *into separate funds via voluntary contributions*, and are a hell of a lot more forthcoming about how that money gets spent than the thinky tanks and astroturf groups who are propagating this horsepoop.