Can’t understand why the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Movement for Black Lives have issued proclamations opposing the expansion of school choice and Parent Power for the very black families for which they proclaim to care? The answer can be found in the annual financial statements of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions.
Over the past five years, the Big Two unions have worked zealously to co-opt black and other minority-oriented groups. Having been on the defensive against school reformers for most of the past decade, NEA and AFT used their considerable coffers to subsidize organizations in exchange for support for their agenda. For the most part, it hasn’t worked out nearly as well as the unions have expected. The $300,000 NEA and AFT gave to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in 2014-2015, for example, hasn’t stopped the controversial civil rights activist from being a strong supporter for expanding public charter schools, while outfits such as the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights have sparred with the Big Two over federal accountability rules contained over the now-abolished No Child Left Behind Act.
Yet the Big Two’s vast spending has managed to gain it some allies. One of the biggest: NAACP, which has long ago abandoned its admirable leading role on civil rights and school reform that included spearheading litigation that led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s abolition of Jim Crow segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Between 2010-2011 and 2014-2015, NEA and AFT increased its contributions to NAACP and its affiliates by a six-fold (from $25,000 to $151,700); the outfit collected $380,500 from the two unions within that period.
For these paltry sums over that period (especially when compared to what National Action Network has received in one year alone), NAACP has repaid the Big Two with almost complete adherence to their agenda. This includes last week’s passage of the resolution calling for a moratorium on expanding charter schools, the most-popular option for black families otherwise forced to attend failure mills in their communities. Even with numerous polls showing strong support among black families for charters and other forms of school choice, overwhelming evidence that high-quality charters are successful in improving student achievement, and support for choice among some of NAACP’s own affiliates, the old-school civil rights groups has been all too willing to join common cause with those who don’t have the interests of black children at heart.
But the NAACP’s allegiance to NEA and AFT isn’t just about money. Among the influential members of NAACP’s 64 member board: Hazel Dukes, whose long (and often infamous) tenure as head of its Empire State affiliate included teaming up with the AFT’s United Federation of Teachers in an unsuccessful effort to stop the Big Apple from renting space in half-empty traditional school buildings to charter schools. Dukes is also notorious for accusing parents of charter school students of “doing the business of slave masters”.
Another top NAACP board member is Adora Obi Nweze, the president of the group’s Florida branch, which joined the NEA’s and AFT’s Florida affiliate in its unsuccessful suit to end that state’s school choice program. Last year, the Florida NAACP convinced the national association to pass a resolution reaffirming its longstanding opposition to vouchers and other forms of choice.
The strong ties alone between Dukes (who remains NAACP’s most-influential board member) and AFT alone, along with the presence of Baby Boomer teachers in the outfits membership, all but ensures that the concerns of black families are secondary to traditionalist interests. Even if Dukes and Nweze weren’t on the board, NAACP would be more than a tad willing to go along with NEA’s and AFT’s agenda. This is because the association’s board has strong ties to the unions that make up AFL-CIO, the labor confederation in which AFT (along with more than a few NEA affiliates) is an influential member. This includes James Settles, Jr., a vice president of the United Auto Workers; Robin Williams (an apparatchik with the United Food and Commercial Workers International); and William Lucy of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, a key AFT ally.
But as noted earlier, NAACP is one of the few old-school civil rights groups on which NEA and AFT can count on as a reliable ally. So the Big Two have had to cultivate new alliances though a strategy of wrapping themselves in the language of social justice. This includes working to co-opt activists within the criminal justice reform and Black Lives Matter movements.
Certainly the Big Two unions are using their coffers to win at least some of those activists over. But it isn’t just a matter of money. As any civil rights-oriented school reformer can tell you, NEA and AFT have learned long ago that extending helping hands, from meeting spaces to using fax machines to simply endorsing a platform, goes a long way in winning alliances. This is something reformers, more-concerned with policymaking and institution-building, have never understood.
That many in the school reform movement have either been reluctant or outright hostile about working with Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform activists on addressing issues that are tied to schools (including overuse of harsh school discipline and the penchant of traditional districts to refer children to juvenile courts), has also made it easy for NEA and AFT to win over some activists.
This partially-successful co-opting by NEA and AFT can be seen in the manifesto issued by Movement for Black Lives this week (which hasn’t been championed by such leading lights within the Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform movements as Deray McKesson). The declaration itself was written not by the Black Lives Matter activists within the coalition, but largely by two of NEA’s and AFT’s prime vassals.
One of the coauthors, Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, has long been a front for the Big Two. Besides counting NEA and AFT among its members, the coalition includes vassals such as the Schott Foundation for Public Education (which collected $725,000 from the two unions between 2013-2014 and 2014-2015), and Center for Popular Democracy (a recipient of $1 million in teachers’ union money in that same period whose board includes AFT President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten on its board). Another coauthor, Philadelphia Student Union, has been one of AFT’s lead groups in its effort to oppose systemic reform and school choice in the City of Brotherly Love; it collected $20,000 from AFT in 2013-2014.
Given the presence of these groups, along with the presence of Alliance for Educational Justice (another group backed by AFT), it is little wonder why so much of the “manifesto” focuses on opposing choice and Parent Power, as well as calling for districts to stop hiring recruits trained by Teach For America, the teacher quality reform outfit that has long been the bane of the Big Two’s existence. [This is even before you consider that, unlike NEA and AFT, Teach For America has actually recruited more black men and women into teaching, as well as supported the work of Black Lives Matter activists such as McKesson and Brittany Packnett (a Teach For America staffer).] The manifesto proclaims to raise questions about the role of black families and communities in shaping the schools that serve their children. But because it merely consists of NEA and AFT talking points, it spends more time making laughable claims about “privatization” of education even though most children still attend traditional public schools.
The fingerprints of NEA and AFT can also be seen in what Movement for Black Lives either ignores or barely touches on: Zip Code Education policies such as zoned schooling and restrictions on intra-district choice that force black families to send their kids to dropout factories that put them on the path to poverty and prison. The overuse of out-of-school suspensions, referrals to juvenile justice systems and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline that all but a few NEA and AFT affiliates strongly support. The near-lifetime employment rules through tenure and teacher dismissal policies defended by NEA and AFT that deny high-quality teaching to black children. The traditional district bureaucracies, often influenced by NEA and AFT locals through campaign donations, that do everything possible to oppose Parent Trigger measures and other tools that give black families lead decision making roles in the schools that serve their children.
Certainly no one should expect NEA and AFT to care about the lives and futures of black children and their families. They have long ago proven that their concerns are elsewhere. But there is no reason why NAACP and Movement for Black Lives are siding with the Big Two in perpetuating the educational genocide that has enslaved and destroyed the minds and futures of the black children for which they are supposed to be concerned. In the process, both (along with the reform movement itself) have wasted an important opportunity to reshape systemic reform in a way that puts black children and families at the center. What a shame.
About the Author: RiShawn Biddle is Editor and Publisher of Dropout Nation — the leading commentary Web site on education reform — a columnist for Rare and The American Spectator, award-winning editorialist, speechwriter, communications consultant and education policy advisor. More importantly, he is a tireless advocate for improving the quality of K-12 education for every child. The co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era, Biddle combines journalism, research and advocacy to bring insight on the nation’s education crisis and rally families and others to reform American public education. This article originally appeared in Dropout Nation and is republished here with permission from the author.