All teachers’ summits in California are political summits

By Kevin Dayton
August 9, 2017

If you’re looking for evidence that Joe Biden is gearing up for a presidential bid, consider the line-up at the July 28 California Teachers Summit. Billed as their third annual, organizers said the event was broadcast live to an audience of some 10,000 participants in 35 locations throughout the state.

Delivering the keynote address was Dr. Jill Biden, wife of the former vice president, former U.S. senator, and likely Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Dr. Biden’s speech in California was one of numerous signs that Joe Biden is emulating the strategies of Hillary Clinton in preparation for a 2020 presidential campaign. To establish proper credentials for elite respectability, the Bidens have established a foundation to support human rights, signed a lucrative publishing deal for three books, and purchased an expensive home in a desirable location. Two colleges have added the Biden name to their policy centers.

Meanwhile, Jill Biden is using speaking engagements to relate her experiences as a “lifelong educator” (with a doctorate in education) to the experiences of the ordinary classroom teacher. As reported in social media, press releases, and news articles, Dr. Biden used her speaking role at the California Teachers Summit to pass on words of wisdom:

  • Sometimes the most courageous thing we can do is lean on our community.
  • I got into education because it was a family business.
  • Teaching is not what I do, it’s who I am.
  • Teachers are leaders because we have to be. It’s the nature of the job.
  • There’s always a part of you that is thinking about your students.
  • That’s what I love about teachers – we’re constantly learning.
  • It’s an exciting time to be a teacher.
  • Every day in the [Obama] Administration, I leaned on my experiences as a teacher.
  • Supporting education is a bipartisan issue.
  • Being an educator is about bridging divides, coming up with creative solutions, and finding a way forward, even when it’s tough. When I think about the challenges we face as a nation and as a global community, teachers are the people who give me the most hope.

Jill Biden Speaks at California Teachers SummitTeachers in the audience were likely flattered. That was the point. More neutral observers   might surmise that behind the platitudes was an astute political operative – someone who saw the California Teachers Summit as an opportunity to promote the potential presidential campaign of Joe Biden to thousands of engaged California public school teachers. Of course, Jill Biden’s speech appears even better when juxtaposed with subsequent discussions at the summit about how President Donald Trump threatens public education and teachers’ core values.

Who Sponsored the Summit?

Three entities sponsored the event: a non-profit organization called the New Teacher Center, California State University, and the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU). There was no apparent involvement of teachers’ unions in the summit.

The Santa Cruz-based New Teacher Center says it operates professional-development programs to improve the retention rate of new teachers in low-income and rural school districts throughout the country. In California, the organization has been involved with such districts as the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto, the East Side Union High School District in San Jose, the San Francisco Unified School District, and the Fresno Unified School District. Based on independent studies, the New Teacher Center asserts that its program improves teacher retention in such school districts and leads to higher test scores.

The New Teacher Center evolved into its current organizational model in 1998 and spun off from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2009. It appears to have raised more than $200 million since 2010 from government sources and foundation grants, including at least $42.5 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education. Donors include the Goldman Sachs Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Gates Foundation. According to a 2014 article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper, the organization has also received grants from groups such as the Skoll Foundation, NewSchools Venture Fund, SeaChange Capital Partners in New York and New Profit Inc. of Boston. But it’s seeking more funding: it reduced its staff from 207 to 190 between April and July 2017, the Santa Cruz Sentinel recently reported. While biographical profiles of board members and staff indicate routine establishment-type support for public education and “social change,” the group itself doesn’t seem to have any overt political stances.

The other two partners for the California Teachers Summit are the California State University system and the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU). It’s likely these partners are primarily involved because they offer teacher training and credentialing programs – the AICCU claims to be “credentialing almost half of the new teachers in California.”

Did a Campaign Consulting Firm Help to Politicize the Summit?

The California Teachers Summit website describes the gathering with a subtle political edge:

California teachers are working hard to foster inclusive classrooms, spark learning and equip all students to succeed. This is a difficult job, especially at a time when our country is divided and our core values as educators are being challenged. Now more than ever, teachers deserve an opportunity to come together and share ways to support our students, protect our values as educators and set an example for the rest of the country.

Better Together California Teachers Summit 2017 Core Values Challenged

A few words in this description are enough to alert the potential attendee that California Teachers Summit organizers believe President Trump and his political allies are dividing the country, excluding some students from success, and denigrating core values of teachers. (Obviously Joe and Jill Biden are not considered divisive, exclusionary, or devoid of proper core values.) Teachers have a responsibility to work collectively to set a contrasting example. The summit will inspire teachers to do it and provide instruction.

This description is not the only place in the summit promotional materials where skillfully crafted language is used to hint at a need for political and social change. The program agenda for the 2017 summit exclusively focuses on issues of contemporary importance to Social Justice movements:

Edcamp Breakout Sessions: During Edcamp sessions teachers will pick their own topics – ranging from addressing bullying in the classroom, to celebrating diversity, to teaching students to be open-minded, critical thinkers.

Based on this agenda, the summit sounds suspiciously like competition against (or cooperation with) the California Teachers Association or the California Federation of Teachers to get teachers involved in politics and beat back Trump.

But participants on social media and the resource guide for participants also indicated discussions at the summit about the involvement of fathers in the education of their children, using technology in the classroom, implementing state standards, and managing time efficiently when grading papers. The summit was not exclusively political, nor did it need to be political. Why did promotional materials insinuate a free training camp to help teachers get involved in social justice movements? Why was Jill Biden the keynote speaker?

One possible clue is the affiliation of a California Teachers Summit media contact with a national campaign consulting firm called Spitfire Strategies.

Spitfire Strategies does contract work for the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, one of the summit sponsors. It has a staff with significant expertise in left-leaning grassroots and candidate campaigns. The firm cites numerous left-leaning non-profit organizations and foundations among its clients. It works for causes that include “immigration, reproductive health rights, education, public health, resource conservation and criminal justice reform.” Its top staff wants to funnel the resistance movement to President Trump through civic institutions as a way to advance “important progressive issues like equality, inclusive economies, and a sustainable world.”

One of those civic institutions would presumably be the annual “California Teachers Summit” with its 10,000 participating teachers. Who could resist the opportunity?

Every Teachers Conference in California Will Be Political, and People Know It

There was one group of Californians that was openly and viciously dismissive of the event. The California Teachers Summit encouraged summit participants to use the #BetterTogetherCA hashtag to promote what they were experiencing and learning. However, this hashtag also attracted mockery and demeaning remarks about California’s education system from conservative commenters on social media. A sample of comments:

  • This is laughable. CA schools are horrible. These people live in a delusional world.  The Dems have killed CA
  • Born and raised in Southern California… Leftists destroyed my home. Suck it California!! #FailureFriday
  • California School Systems inspiring confidence in kids education by using a variation of Hillary’s failed campaign slogan
  • These will be the ppl telling us abt #GlobalWarming   Say Goodbye To X+Y: Should Community Colleges Abolish Algebra? n.pr/2vCphok
  • This hashtag is so STUPID!! The Left has destroyed my beautiful state..Someone rescue me, uughhh

Perhaps Jill Biden is right to declare that “supporting education is a bipartisan issue.” But these derogatory comments show that education is a very partisan and ideologically charged issue when it comes to the purpose of education and the means of supporting it. Education is political, and one should assume that any conference for California public school teachers is going to promote political, economic, and cultural transformation toward social justice as the ideological objective of education.


Kevin Dayton, a frequent contributor to the California Policy Center, is President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and writes frequently about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.

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