-------------------------- SIDEBAR PHOTO: AFT President Randi Weingarten is expected to criticize the education secretary in a speech. | AP Photo--------criticize the education secretary in a speech. | AP Photo -------------------------
By Stephanie Simon
The American Federation of Teachers will open its annual convention Friday morning with a startling announcement: After years of strongly backing the Common Core, the union now plans to give its members grants to critique the academic standards - or to write replacement standards from scratch.
It's a sign that teachers are frustrated and fed up - and they're making their anger heard, loud and clear.
The AFT will also consider a resolution - drafted by its executive council - asserting that the promise of the Common Core has been corrupted by political manipulation, administrative bungling, corporate profiteering and an invalid scoring system designed to ensure huge numbers of kids fail the new math and language arts exams that will be rolled out next spring. An even more pointed resolution flat out opposing the standards will also likely come up for a vote.
Supporters of Common Core say they hope union leaders will seek to minimize anti-standards rhetoric. And they point out that union discontent with the Common Core has been simmering for some time. The AFT called more than a year ago for a moratorium on using Common Core test scores to determine whether students deserve to advance to the next grade - or teachers deserve to keep their jobs. And the New York state teachers union earlier this year withdrew its support for the standards as implemented.
Still, policy analysts see this weekend's moves as an escalation - a stark signal that union opposition has switched into high gear, potentially threatening an initiative that both conservatives and liberals have supported for years and that has become one of President Barack Obama's key education priorities.
Advocates of national standards have been working for more than two decades toward their goal "and now that it's coming close to implementation, it's all blowing up," said David Menefee-Libey, a political scientist at Pomona College.
Added Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford: "It certainly is a big, loud warning shot."
The AFT is also asking members to hike their dues to support more aggressive political activism.
The AFT's actions come on the heels of a surprising vote this month by the country's biggest teachers union, the National Education Association, to demand the resignation of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The union, which poured resources into electing Obama, had considered such a resolution in past years but it never came close to passing.
A dump-Duncan resolution is not on the AFT's agenda yet, but union members say they're certain one will be introduced.
The tone of the convention will likely be set early. AFT President Randi Weingarten is expected to kick it off with a speech passing harsh judgment on Duncan, who has served since the start of the Obama administration. The president and his Education secretary have supported the union on several issues, most recently speaking up for them in the face of an adverse Supreme Court decision. But Duncan has also promoted charter schools, required states and districts to compete for education dollars and applauded a recent court ruling striking down teacher tenure in California - all stances that have infuriated union members.
Just days ago, Weingarten stood beside Duncan to endorse the Education Department's plan to prod states to make sure the neediest children have access to the most effective teachers.
Today, she is expected to say: "We need a secretary of Education who walks our walk and fights our fight for the tools and resources we need to help children. And we are deeply disappointed that this Department of Education has not lived up to that standard."
Duncan brushed off the NEA's call for his resignation, saying he doesn't get involved in union politics - and doesn't believe most teachers do either. He has said he intends to work with union leaders on shared priorities.
But union leaders don't appear to be in the mood for conciliation.
Weingarten, for instance, has repeatedly said she supports Common Core, but she also made a deliberate decision to allow a long public debate - which will be livestreamed online - on the standards. She has said the AFT is a democracy and will adopt policies favored by a majority of members, even if that means a dizzying about-face on the Common Core.
"In both the NEA and the AFT, the leadership made the decision to allow the frustration that some of the rank and filers are feeling to spill out into the open," said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, which has backed the Duncan agenda. "They must be making the calculation that the frustration itself is going to be something that helps them advance a political agenda."
A key item on that political agenda: Dismantling the federal law, signed by former President George W. Bush, that requires every student to be tested every year from grades three through eight and at least once in high school.
The NEA voted at its convention to launch a campaign against "toxic testing" by fighting testing mandates imposed at the federal, state and local levels. The AFT will consider a similar resolution.
Critics find the unions hypocritical because they have pushed for years for better tests to replace the multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble exams that most states have used since No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2002.
The new Common Core exams are supposed to be much more rigorous and include more real-world, hands-on problem-solving challenges - exactly what unions have demanded.
But now that they're here, some union members are protesting that the new exams are too long, too hard, too punitive - and will make too much money for a handful of testing companies. The AFT's draft resolution declares it "outrageous" that "the promise and potential" of the standards has been compromised by "a rush to cash in on the Common Core by profiteers and corporate interests."
Some analysts view such militant rhetoric as a cynical move, designed to rally support for dismantling the testing and accountability frameworks - such as A-F letter grades for public schools - that have been put in place over the past decade by a bipartisan group of education reformers. They argue that unions see tough accountability standards as a threat to members' jobs and are fanning public outrage to build support for an abrupt change in national policy.
"The unions try to create dissatisfaction through their public relations campaign, by arguing that these things are extreme and excessive," said Terry Moe, a political scientist who studies education politics at Stanford. "They are pretty successful at creating trouble for reformers."
When it comes to Common Core, both the NEA and the AFT have long - and avidly - backed the standards, which are designed to guide instruction in math and language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade. Both have taken money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote the standards.
The NEA declined to revisit the issue at its convention in Denver earlier this month.
But the AFT, which is meeting in Los Angeles, has set aside an hour on Sunday for a no-holds-barred floor debate. That could yield a momentous vote to denounce the standards altogether, said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, which is already on record opposing the standards.
Even if the union continues to endorse the Common Core, the plan to give teachers grants to rewrite or critique the standards sends a clear message, activists said.
"This is a huge step because this time last year, they were gung-ho for Common Core," said Mark Naison, a history professor at Fordham University who helped launch the Badass Teachers Association, which represents thousands of NEA and AFT members eager for their unions to take a more militant stance against the standards and the education reform movement. "The AFT realizes which way the wind is blowing."
The grant program does not need a vote from the membership to take effect. Union officials say they expect to begin distributing grants worth about $20,000 to $30,000 this fall. Local and state affiliates are eligible for the grants; AFT officials are encouraging applicants to build coalitions with parents and civic leaders, though teachers are supposed to lead the work.
In an ironic twist, the grant money will come from the AFT's Innovation Fund, which until recently was supported by the Gates Foundation. Weingarten bowed to members' anger at Bill Gates earlier this year and stopped accepting his foundation's money for the Innovation Fund. The fund is now replenished with member dues and grants from the Ford Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies, AFT officials said.
The Council of Chief State School Officers, which helped write the standards, declined to comment on the AFT's moves to undercut the Common Core.
Michael Brickman, national policy director for the Fordham Institute, which backs the standards, said he hoped the AFT leaders would minimize damage to the Common Core movement by tempering their rhetoric. The draft resolution put forward by the executive committee does list some benefits of the standards, which aim to push students to think more analytically and read texts more critically.
"If they continue to speak positively for standards, that's a positive," Brickman said.
Brickman said he understood the anger surging through the AFT and NEA. "The unions in general," he said, "have not had the best 2014 so far."
Indeed, it's been a tumultuous year for the teachers unions, which represent a combined 3.8 million workers and retirees. (Most are in the education field, but the AFT, which has sought to grow through diversification, also represents nurses, maintenance workers, public defenders, lifeguards and others.)
The judge's ruling striking down tenure and other job protections in California was a major blow. The unions will appeal the ruling. But in the meantime, activists are laying plans for copycat lawsuits in other states.
A national public relations campaign against tenure is in the works, too - and is being led by a firm founded by two former Obama spokesmen. That development has left many teachers feeling betrayed by their longtime allies in the Democratic Party.
To bolster the union's coffers for the legal and political battles to come, the AFT leadership is asking members to support a two-stage dues hike that would add $5.40 a year to their bills this year and another $6.60 in 2015.
Most of the increase would go toward the "militancy/defense fund" and state and national "solidarity funds," which support litigation, political activism and lobbying.
"Unionized teachers are feeling very vulnerable," Menefee-Libey said.
In both conventions, Darling-Hammond said she sees a plea for respect and engagement from an administration that has brushed aside some union priorities and belittled some union positions. Both conventions are sending the same message, she said: "We have serious concerns. Take our concerns seriously." *******************************************