Saturday, October 3, 2015

An Open Letter to Jerry Oleksiak (PSEA President)

Dear Jerry:

It has been a disappointing couple of days, what with the announcement of the announcement that the terrible Arne Duncan will be replaced with the even-worse John King. On top of that, we get the NEA's announcement of the early endorsement of Hillary Clinton. Now, today, on Facebook, I find your rationalized spin for that endorsement. I am beyond disappointed, but rather than simply stomp off angrily without saying anything except, "Cancel my membership," I want to address your comments, despite the fact that this endorsement fiasco drives home the fact that nobody in the state or local union is paying the slightest damn attention to the members. I am in my thirty seventh year of teaching in a classroom. I'm a registered Democrat who votes in every single election, and I'm a past local president of my union. So understand that I am not just some random crank, but an experienced and long-involved crank.

After presenting the background of your involvement in NEA's decision, you ask this question.

As you make your own decisions about whom you will support, I would encourage you to ask yourself this question: "Does this candidate support public education, our schools, and our students?"

It is an excellent question to ask, and one that I have asked myself. In fact, it's in asking this question that I arrive at my personal decision not to support Clinton. But before I talk about my own data on the issue, I want to see how that question leads you and NEA to an endorsement of Hillary Clinton. So let's look at what you've got.

I have spoken to many PSEA members over the past year, and one concern I hear again and again is that public education in the United States is at a crossroads. Our colleagues you elected to the NEA board have heard similar sentiments, as have their NEA Board colleagues in other states. That is why they felt it was so important to act early and decisively to recommend someone for president who is the right person to take our country in the right direction.

Do not talk to us as if we are children. First of all, the NEA higher-ups did not get together to endorse "somebody" as the right person. You got together to consider endorsing Hillary Clinton, and you did it in hopes that by stepping in to save her flagging candidacy at the point it's beginning to circle the drain, the NEA would earn some favors, or at least some standing with a possible Clinton administration. If Clinton were not starting to worry about Bernie Sanders, the NEA would never have been having this conversation.

Secretary Clinton is a longtime supporter of public education and a longtime friend of NEA. She has worked throughout her career to make sure every child has access to preschool, and every child has access to quality healthcare through the CHIP program. 

Those two examples mean nothing in terms of supporting public education. And if you want to convince me she's a friend of NEA, you'd better get specific, because while it's hard to prove a negative, I'm damned if I can think of a single time she's done something for the union.

She opposes over-testing of students, and has fought for greater resources for our schools. 

When? How? You follow with a quote in which she says something nice about public education, but general platitudes are not reassuring, particularly when we're talking about someone who praised Jeb Bush's work on education in Florida. 

Secretary Clinton will also be a voice for our professions. She supports higher salaries for educators and collective bargaining rights. Secretary Clinton has said, "It's time to stand up to efforts across our country to undermine worker bargaining power, which has been proven again and again to drive up wages."

Surely the NEA leadership is not that obtuse. Higher salaries for teachers is popular talking point among many education reformers, who see higher pay-- for some-- as a useful tool in de-professionalizing teaching. Some like the idea of higher pay--linked to test results. Others like the idea of well-paid super-sardinemasters, with teachers handling hundreds of students in a single class.

And if Senator Clinton feels strongly about bargaining rights, why has she not spoken out strongly about any of the direct attacks on those rights.

She will listen to our ideas, be sensitive to our policy recommendations, and appoint a secretary of education who will do what's right for our schools and students.

Who do you mean by "our" exactly? Because apparently I can't even get my own union to listen to my ideas, so I'm not thinking members concerns will get passed on. "Be sensitive to" is the weakest kind of weasel language, as is the line about the secretary of education.

I mean, part of my issue here is that this is a bunch of weak-sauced general pablum at a time in which we face very specific, very direct attacks on our profession. If the candidate can't talk about specifics, I'm going to assume that the candidate is either ignorant of them or chooses not to address them because the candidate thinks I wouldn't like what she/he has to say. If soldiers from East Bottlevania were landing on the beaches of New Jersey, slaughtering civilians and blowing up cities, I would not be looking for a President who says, "In general, we are sensitive to the idea that foreign nationals should not be entering our nation's mainland and doing things that make our citizens upset." 

There has been speculation out there that NEA has not followed its prescribed process in making this recommendation.

Again, you can't be this obtuse. The speculation has not been that NEA is not following its process-- the speculation is that NEA's process sucks. I can think you can find plenty of members who have always thought it sucked, but generally felt that A) they couldn't do anything about it and B) it didn't usually involve really damaging decisions. This time is different. This time teachers are feeling really, really pushed into a corner and attacked, and meanwhile, their state and national unions aren't hearing them or addressing the problem. The proscribed process is one more way in which rank and file members are left feeling unheard and ignored by their own leadership. I don't care if you followed the letter of the rules that you set up for yourselves. The rules stink.

Additionally, as I've written before, this was exact;y the wrong for this type of political maneuvering. Democratic processes are under attack in this country, and to take action that makes a blatant lie out of Eskelsen-Garcia's "This is what democracy looks like" statement is exactly the wrong action at the wrong time. I don't care if it follows the policy and procedures manual or not.

Over the recent summer and into the fall, we have watched the presidential campaign kick into high gear. We have witnessed several candidates stake out positions of support for:
- Cutting funding to public schools;
- Linking educator pay to student test scores;
- Expanding private school vouchers;
- Weakening collective bargaining rights; and
- Testing kids even more than we do now.
Some candidates even want to go so far as to get rid of the U.S. Department of Education!

The subtext here is supposed to be, "But the GOP is really, really worse," I suppose, and I cannot begin to tell you how thoroughly deeply completely utterly sick I am of having my union leadership tell me, "Well, we have to support the guy who will cut off our legs, because the other guy will cut off our legs and arms both."  I have had this argument with your predecessors, because this is a stupid, self-defeating line of reasoning, and we have suffered decades of misery because of it. The appropriate response to two candidates who each want to hurt us severely is to support NONE of them.

But your list is particularly galling because some of the things listed here are much-beloved by Hillary Clinton. She is a long-time fan of vouchers and privatizing schools through charters. The Center for American Progress has close ties to the Clinton campaign (John Podesta, previous CAP head and current Clinton campaign chief is just one example), and CAP has pushed for charters, high stakes testing, Common Core, and teacher evaluations tied to testing.

Faced with these grim realities, the NEA board chose to support a candidate who can win this election and will be a champion for our schools, our students, and our professions.

Yes, ultimately, this is about NEA leadership's belief in Clinton's ability to win-- at least, if she's not too bloodied by Sanders. But for the love of God-- if there is a credible reason to believe that Clinton will be a champion for any of those things, you had better share it with us, because I'll be damned if I've seen it.

Look-- beyond individual candidates, PSEA and NEA need to take a good hard look at their relationship with the Democratic party. In Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell was a disaster for public education, and nationally, the Obama-Duncan administration has been the most destructive ever. Like good little soldiers, we teachers keep sending our support, and our elected Democratic politicians keep stabbing us in the back. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only teacher who's had enough, and now I see us pushing a Clinton Presidency, which for education looks like more Obama Presidency, which simply doubled down on the worst policy choices of the Bush Presidency.

Other states found the backbone to stand up to the national union on this. It would have been heartening to see Pennsylvania do the same. Instead, once again, here comes the union leadership with carefully crafted spin and PR designed to manage the members and get them to fall into line. Honestly, I suppose I'll stew over quitting the union for a while and ultimately not do it, for a variety of unrelated reasons. But it's a union affiliation that am now ashamed of. This was a bad choice, divisive and destructive of NEA bargaining strength and dismissive of members at a time when we really don't need to be ignored by one more national organization, as well as supportive of a politician who we have no reason to believe will have our backs, ever. All the more ironic when NEA leadership has admitted that another candidate is much more in tune with our concerns.

PSEA has been trying to address the questions of 1) how to get more young teachers into the union and 2) how to get better PACE participation. Pretty sure this will not help. "Hey, young teacher, please join PSEA. We would love to have your dues, and we will be happy to tell you what you think." Not a winner. Also, "Give us money to support politicians who will only stomp on you a little," is not a great sales pitch.

This was a bad call, and your attempt to justify it only made it sting worse. Feel free to contact me with any information that would help me better understand. In the meantime, I'm just going to continue being pissed off.


Peter Greene


  1. Thanks as always for the post that sums up my feelings. I, too, was pissed off today as Steve Cook, the MEA president spoke similarly to the delegates at our RA today in response to a NBI. It was to have our leadership convey our desire to delay endorsement of a candidate by the NEA. It was ruled out of order because it came before our "democratic" body after the NEA decision was made. The old saying "With friends like these who needs enemies" rings true today. Now it's off to read your John King post as I didn't get to it earlier today!
    Lynne Cobb

  2. "Do not talk to us as if we are children" is what most resonates with me.

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  4. You've summed it up beautifully, Mr. Greene. TESTify!

  5. Couple of points about where your facts are just plain wrong. First, early endorsements are a political strategy used by all number of groups and political persuasions. There is debate on how and when they are effective. It is not some last gasp effort by NEA or Secretary Clinton. Second, when talking about early endorsements and presidential elections, there seems to be a huge political strategy for the folks running.

  6. EXACTLY the point. It is a political strategy, not a member decision.

  7. Wonderfully articulated, as always. The NEA and the AFT should tread very carefully with Freidrichs vs. CA teachers being considered by the Supremes. There are many many pissed off members who would easily pull their contributions because they feel that their voices are not being heard. The NEA and the AFT are not listening to their members at all.