The neoliberals, corporate foundations, billionaires, and others looking to privatize our public schools work hard to sell their actions as that of local grassroots organizations whose only concerns are for the children, especially poor, urban, and minority children. These astroturf groups have worked their way into every state, including Minnesota. We have the well-financed MinnCAN and Students First among others, but in their efforts the corporate reformers keep running into the public school teachers and their unions who actually do care about ALL children.
These corporate "reformers" have long realized that if they are going to privatize the public schools, they must eliminate the the voice of the teachers, and the unions that protect their right to speak in defense of their students. The "reformers" have had a great deal of success, convincing both Republican and Democratic politicians to pass legislation that weakens teacher unions and public education. The push-back, however, has been growing steadily. Led by rank-and-file members who have demanded more action from their own union leadership or have taken over the leadership as C.O.R.E. did in Chicago, teachers are calling out the corporate reformers for what they are - privatizers and union-busters.
The corporate reformers are feeling the heat, but they will not go away quietly. A new strategy has evolved in recent years with the help of the "happy-face" of the corporate reformers - Teach for America (TFA).
The new strategy is to convince the public that teachers really do want the corporate reforms, but that it is actually their own unions that are keeping them silent. It is a devious approach that can pit new teachers against veteran teachers. These newer groups receiving money from Gates, the Waltons, and other corporate foundations are started and led, by mostly TFA alumni, and recruit heavily among TFA corp members and other younger teachers.
In many cities, it is Teach Plus that has taken on this role. It's stated goal is "to engage early career teachers in rebuilding their profession to better meet the needs of students and the incoming generation of teachers." Here in Minnesota, Educators for Excellence (E4E) is the group leading the effort to hide the union-busting/privatization agenda behind "real teachers." This past week, E4E officially launched in Minnesota, following a typical corporate product launch strategy.
Beth Hawkins, the "education reporter" for MinnPost and one of the Twin Cities biggest cheerleaders for the corporate take-over of public education, is now trumpeting Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) and their claim to offer teachers "a bigger voice in education policy." Hawkins presents E4E and its members empathetically, as idealistic teachers who have been marginalized in education policy decisions and ignored by unresponsive teachers unions.
Hawkins and MinnPost are helping Madaline Edison, now the full-time Executive Director of Minnesota's E4E, with the corporate style rollout of the "new" reform group. They are selling a movement that is not only not needed, but in fact is detrimental to public education. MinnPost published three "news" stories about E4E in four days (See here, here, and here). MinnPost is an on-line "newspaper" run by Joel Kramer, father of Minnesota's first family of corporate education reform and the former owner of the daily newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The Star Tribune probably would have covered the E4E "news" itself, had it not been so busy shilling for E4E's older sibling of corporate education reform - Teach for America (TFA) - (see here, here, and here).
Launch of a Corporate Product
Launching a new product, or in this case an organization, is not done with a single press release, or event. "Reform" groups like E4E use the same marketing strategies of their financiers. David Lavenda, a product strategy and marketing executive offers some advice for a successful product launch on FastCompany.com, including the following:
Start early. Don’t expect reporters to write about you when you want. Get a head start and begin preparing long before you plan to launch. A rolling launch is a great way to keep the conversation going.
Get partners involved. Channel and marketing partners who have a financial stake in the success of the launch are natural allies. The more people that are talking about the release, the better chances it will get pickup.
E4E-Minnesota has been rolling out its launch for well over a year. It had its origins in a group with another combination of letters and numbers - E3MN, which stood for Empowering Educators for Equity MN. E3MN began in early 2012, and its first Facebook Event was a meeting with the co-founders of Educators 4 Excellence.
The groups E3MN identity appears to have been a place-holder as the group built it's E4E brand. They focused on connecting with "marketing partners" by building alliances with other corporate reformers. The second Facebook Event they hosted in June of 2012 was a happy hour meet-and-greet with MinnCAN.
In addition to building a core group with mostly TFA teachers and partnering with other corporate reformers, the group needed to build a local financial base and Minnesota has its share of corporate philanthropists. In September of 2012, The Robins, Kaplan, Miller, and Ciresi Foundation for Children awarded E3MN a grant of $17,500. The foundation's website explains that the grant was to
"support the expansion of Empowering Educators for Equity (E3MN) to impact student success through teacher organizing and leadership for systemic legislative and contractual changes."Michael Ciresi, is a famous local lawyer who ran twice for the DFL nomination for U.S. Senate, but lost. The Foundation that bears his name, and he leads, has become the major supporter of local corporate education reforms. E4E received the grant from his foundation because they promote an agenda that helps to dismantle teachers' unions, thereby opening the door to the free market...and closing the door on public schools.
"Liberal" Sleight of Hand
Ciresi is similar to many Democratic (DFL in Minnesota) politicians and party activists, in that he claims to favor a liberal or progressive political agenda, but more often follows a corporate agenda. E4E leaders, and presumably many of its members follow this same approach, at least in regard to education. E4E, like the "reformers" who claim the Civil Rights mantle, does not just focus on dismantling teachers' unions, but also claims to promote a "progressive" agenda. This is "reformer" slight of hand, a distraction from the real work of E4E.
In Beth Hawkins propaganda piece published last Tuesday, she helps E4E's new Executive Director, Madaline Edison, sell the idea that focusing on "hot button" contractual/union issues "misses the point." Sydney Morris, the national co-founder and co-CEO of E4E, claims the aim of the organization is "to give teachers a greater voice in making policy on many issues."
Following another element of launching a new product E4E and MinnPost "put the focus on the people not the product." Hawkins introduces us to a number of E4E teachers who want to speak up for their students on issues beyond the classroom. They mistakenly believe, however, that E4E will empower them to do that. Members quoted in the article speak about the fight for immigrations issues and need for early childhood education. Edison, who has never been a member of the teachers' union, suggested that the unions weren't dealing with these issues and that's why they needed to create E3MN (E4E).
With this claim, E4E accepts and perpetuates the neoliberal myth of unions as greedy and self-interested. Social justice has long been a part of union work. Teachers' unions have certainly made mistakes and at times have been on the wrong side of social justice issues, but unions have actively worked for social and racial justice through most of there history.
Another E4E member in Hawkins article talks about her strong family union background and how she wanted to "wear red" in solidarity when union teachers in Chicago went on strike. Despite her union upbringing, she describes the union contact as "that’s where all the power just goes away." Beth Hawkins supports this twisted statement by describing the Minneapolis teachers' union contract as "notoriously complicated."
The third E4E story in MinnPost last week was written by James Kindle. He was a part of the first group of TFA corp members in Minnesota in 2009. To his credit, he has remained in the classroom. However, he also portrays the teachers' contract as a barrier to his "autonomy" as a teacher and his ability to speak out for social justice.
Kindle lets us know that he is the son and grandson of teachers, and like his mother, he wants to be able to look back on his teaching career and say, "Oh, yeah. I enjoyed every day." Unfortunately, if Kindle and E4E (and TFA) are successful in their corporate reform efforts, most teachers will not have much of a career on which to reflect. Without committed teachers organized in strong unions, the profession will be filled with under-trained temporary workers.
This is how the conservatives have taken the upper hand with regard to education policy. Many self-proclaimed liberals/progressives, who were once the ardent defenders of a strong, democratic system of public schools, have accepted the argument that the "free market" actually serves the public good and does so in an equitable way. Making matters even worse, these so called liberals have accepted the idea that unions and collective bargaining protections are relics of the past.
The Corporate Reformers and their Agenda
Focusing on "hot-button" issues such as tenure, seniority rights, and teacher evaluations, "misses the mark" according to Madaline Edison. E4E wants teachers and the public to see these issues as part of a larger "progressive" agenda. Edison, Kindle, and the other E4E leaders fail to see, or refuse to admit that this is a front for the neoliberal agenda. Their work will weaken the unions they claim to value and strip teachers of their voices they claim to be empowering. They are helping to privatize our public schools.
To become a member of E4E, teachers must sign the organization's "Declaration of Teacher's Principles and Beliefs." A third of this declaration is dedicated to "Restore[ing] Professionalism to Education." According to the document this is done through teacher evaluations that include "value-added student achievement data" (value-added measure - VAM), weakening tenure, and eliminating "last-in-first-out" (seniority rights). The document also contends that we can recruit, retain, and support "the highest quality teachers" by implementing "performance-based pay" (merit pay).
These are the positions of the corporate reformers. To argue these "reforms" will empower teachers, "give them a voice," and/or "autonomy" is naive at best. Merit pay is not a new idea as educational historian, Diane Ravitch, has pointed out. It is professionally insulting, divisive, and it does not work, especially in a profession that thrives on collaboration. Not only has merit pay not worked, Daniel Pink demonstrates that merit pay, in fact, produces worse results!
Value-added is another failed experiment. Despite repeated research demonstrating the inability of VAM to measure a teacher's performance, corporate reformers continue to argue it will separate bad teachers from good, and good teachers from great. What VAM actually does is promote more teaching to tests, and penalizes teachers who are willing to take risks.
Attacks on tenure and seniority are at the heart of the "reformer's" efforts and central to organizations like E4E. Tenure is depicted as "lifetime job security," something that makes it "impossible" to fire under-performing teachers. Tenure does not guarantee a job. It guarantees due process, if you are threatened with disciplinary action, including termination. It requires that administrators demonstrate "just cause" for disciplinary action or termination, and in Minnesota, state statue identifies five areas that can lead to termination at the end of a contract year (see Subdivision 9). Minnesota state statute also lays out reasons for immediate termination of a teacher (see Subdivision 13)
Tenure in Minnesota is only achieved after a three-year probationary period. During this time, the district can terminate a teacher contract without cause. What tenure grants is relatively small, but important power. It enables teachers to disagree with administration and express that disagreement with less fear of repercussions. This is one of the few things that does in fact "give teachers voice," and this is what E4E wants to weaken or eliminate.
Seniority works in concert with tenure to protect teachers from arbitrary loss of employment. In addition to termination due to reasons listed in statute, a teacher can also find themselves unemployed if the school district needs to layoff teachers due to declining enrollment and/or a decline in funds. Requiring layoffs be done in reverse seniority order or "last-in-first-out" (LIFO), prevents administrators from discriminating with regard to layoffs. In other words, they cannot layoff a teacher as a way around the due process guaranteed with tenure. Again, E4E want to eliminate seniority (some argue for making it "one of a number of factors" in determining layoffs), but any weakening of seniority creates a way around the due process guaranteed with tenure.
Losing tenure and/or seniority protections would silence teachers. This is the exact opposite of what E4E claims as its main goal. All of these attacks on teachers and our unions are empowered by a misguided faith in meritocracy. Young teachers are told they are being hurt by more senior teachers being "protected" even when they are "less competent." They are led to believe that administrators, with standardized test scores, can objectively distinguish between teachers who are competent and teachers who excel.
Those who are truly concerned with ensuring that teachers have a voice and are able to speak up for their students, should stand with the teachers' unions. Work to get rid of testing and "accountability" regimes that are really about dismantling public education, and defend tenure and seniority. Then we can work together on behalf of all students, for racial and social justice.
Teachers and the public need to understand the real agenda of Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) and expose this group for what they really are - the sheep's clothing for the corporate education reform wolves.
Posted by: Rob Panning-Miller
Additional information on the origins of E4E's national organization can be found here: