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Richard Lee Colvin Headshot

Snatching Defeat From the Mouth of Victory

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"Let's take the politics out of education." In my many years observing and writing about American education I've probably heard variants of that phrase hundreds of times. It's naïve, of course. We look to the political process to fairly divide up scarce resources. (That's what the current battle over the federal budget and the debt limit is about.) We also look to politicians to represent our interests and values in matters of policy, such as education. That's why politics, as the early 20th century Chicago newspaper columnist Finley Peter Dunne wrote, "ain't beanbag."

Illinois politics are often particularly nasty and, as we know from recent history, don't always put the most ethical or stylish governors into office. Nonetheless, the political process this spring produced important education reform legislation that connects teachers' performance to decisions about tenure, layoffs, recalls, evaluations and dismissals. It also curbed teachers unions' right to strike. According to a new case study out this week from the Center for American Progress, the legislation emerged from a focused, respectful, collaborative effort led by a strong state Senator who made sure that the state's school board, teachers unions, and reform advocates were all involved.

The case study says the "intense but collaborative process" that produced Senate Bill 7 "may provide lessons for other states considering similar legislation."

But that's not the story that the head of one of the reform groups involved told earlier this month at the Aspen Institute's Ideas Festival. (Transcript here, YouTube here) Jonah Edelman, the co-founder and CEO of an Oregon-based advocacy organization called Stand for Children, arrogantly claimed credit for forcing union leaders to give away the store. They were so weak and afraid of Stand's political power and money, according to Edelman, that they had to capitulate. He said the Chicago Teachers Union got snookered on a compromise on the strike provision, due to "probably not knowing the statistics" on past strike votes. "We'd done our homework," he said. "We insisted that we decide all the fine print about the process. [The CTU president] was happy to let us do that." Edelman even managed to diminish Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, calling him "a liberal Democratic governor who was elected by public sector unions" and who, nonetheless, "signed it and took credit for it." It sounds as if Edelman considers himself and his allies to be Grandmaster chess players, moving everyone else around the board.

A video of Edelman's boastful rendering of the story was posted on a blog written by Fred Klonsky, a teacher. Since then it's gone viral on Twitter and education and labor blogs and led to stories in the Chicago Sun-Times and Washington Post's online Answer Sheet column. No doubt under pressure from fellow reformers, Edelman wrote an abject apology in which he contradicted virtually every statement he made in the video. The legislation wasn't jammed down the unions' throats, as he had implied. The reality "is that on teacher effectiveness provisions...there were long, productive negotiations that led to a better outcome than would have occurred without them." He acknowledged that the leaders of Illinois teachers unions are "deeply committed to teaching and learning, that they have exhibited that consistently in the past, and that they exhibited that commitment in spades throughout the negotiations on a series of Senate Bill 7 provisions that will improve teaching and learning."

According to the CAP case study, Stand for Children and Advance Illinois, another reform group, did play an important role. They introduced a very tough bill that, although it went nowhere in the legislature, did cause Illinois teachers' unions to counter with their own draft. This was "the critical tactical move that set up" the rest of the process.

Many self-styled reformers are now mortified by Edelman. Despite his self-renunciation, it is the first version of his comments that activist teachers and their advocates are seizing on as accurate. They seem to confirm their worst fears that all reform policies and legislation focused on improving teacher effectiveness are really just poorly disguised attacks on teachers unions by wealthy philanthropists

Audrey Soglin, the executive director of the Illinois Education Association, was deeply involved in drafting the legislation and she said Edelman's narrative sets "true collaborative" work on improving education "back light years." Instead of learning from Illinois, unions in other states will be more likely to dig in their heels. When "we can't collaborate," she said, "kids suffer, the profession loses, schools don't improve and real reform can't take effect."

The CAP case study extracts lessons to help unions, education advocates and legislative leaders to work together to improve schools. One of the lessons cited was that advocacy organizations ought to "show humility and respect others" if they want to get anything done. That's a lesson that Edelman has no doubt learned, albeit a bit too late.

(One of Stand for Children's funders is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is one of many foundations that support the work of Education Sector.)