A Tale of Two Union Bosses
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….”
So begins Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities. These words could also apply to recent statements by two teacher union presidents. Both men spoke from the heart. Both were brutally honest. And both were a breath of fresh air.
Nothing drives me crazier than when teacher union Pooh-Bahs talk out of both sides of their mouths. For example, they’ll trot out the “we’re really doing x,y and z for the children” bromide and in the next breath they are protecting incompetent and pedophile teachers. So I was very pleased with New York City teacher union leader Michael Mulgrew’s candor at a closed door meeting with union activists last Wednesday. He admitted, “We are at war with the reformers.” (Of course you are, Michael and thanks for sparing us the usual weasel words.) The United Federation of Teachers president didn’t stop there. He went on to slam not only reformers but also charter schools, both of which he said are trying to “destroy education in our country.”
Some teachers were shocked, just shocked at Mulgrew’s words. (I can’t figure out why; maybe it’s because a union leader was being honest for a change?) Given the opportunity, Mulgrew didn’t pull his punches. Instead, he doubled down, telling the New York Post, “These are not new comments. I have said this before. Have I not said the reformers are trying to destroy public education?”
Then there is George Parker who was president of the Washington Teachers Union from 2005-2010. It was a tempestuous time for education in the nation’s capital, as Michelle Rhee had become D.C. School Chancellor in 2007 and the two leaders locked horns over just about everything. But in 2010, after leaving her post, Rhee started StudentsFirst, an education reform advocacy organization. The next year she invited Parker to join her team as a Senior Fellow. Needless to say, he was roundly excoriated by all the usual suspects – branded a “whore” and worse – for hooking up with the dreaded “corporate reformer” Rhee.
I must say that when Parker joined StudentsFirst, I briefly thought it could turn into a fox-in-the-henhouse scenario. Happily, I was quite wrong. To get the full gist of where Parker is now, I urge you to watch this brief must-see video of him speaking at a policy summit late last year. The core of the video is Parker’s “aha” moment.
He is at a school talking to a 3rd grader who asks Parker what he does. He responds that it’s his job to get teachers the types of things they need to get the little girl a good education. Then he tells her that one of his responsibilities is getting her the best teachers. As he is leaving the building, the 8 year-old runs up to Parker and gives him a big hug – an expression of her gratitude because, she tells him, “you care about us … and you said that you make sure we get the best teachers.”
Driving back home, Parker’s life-changing moment came when he realized that he lied to the little girl. He had just spent $10,000 of the union’s money on an arbitration case that put a bad teacher back in the classroom. It was a reality check for Parker, who concluded, somewhat painfully, that he wouldn’t let his own 4 year-old grandchild sit in a classroom with that teacher. The inevitable next thought was, so why is it okay for other people’s kids to be taught by an incompetent?
Parker’s candid confession continues as he describes how he manipulated African-American parents by condemning the charter school concept as a race-and-class issue where whites have the power and are taking advantage of blacks. The real reason he was knocking charters, he goes on to explain, was simply because their existence hurts the union’s bottom line. There’s more, but I urge you to watch this entire heartfelt video to get the full force of the man’s forthright conversion.
Two union leaders. Two refreshingly candid statements.
That having been said, the similarities stop there. Michael Mulgrew will continue fighting to keep education wallowing in the season of darkness. But at the same time, George Parker, an American hero, is battling valiantly to bring us to the spring of hope. The best of times and the worst of times indeed.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.