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Hey Billionaires, If You Give Up on the System, You’re Giving Up on Kids

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal this week argues that philanthropists committed to improving education should give up on donating directly to public schools—Mark Zuckerberg’s grant towards improving Newark’s public schools is the case in point—and, instead, give their money to charter schools or scholarship funds. Why? Because donations given directly to public agencies are doomed to failure: “Philanthropists will not be able to change education and improve student outcomes unless they can circumvent the bureaucracies and interest groups that are responsible for the problems they hope to solve.” Direct donations to public agencies, write James Piereson and Naomi Schaefer Riley, only reinforce “bureaucratic and political ills that have long plagued public education.” But are those of us committed to stoking systemic educational change really ready to make that concession? I'm no philanthropist, but my answer is “no.”

Irreconcilable Differences?

Piereson and Riley make a compelling case that people interested in changing American schooling (at least those with deep pockets) should concede defeat. Union resistance is too entrenched. District central offices are too wasteful. Local, state and federal policies are intractable. Direct donations to districts (they cite not only Newark but also New York City and Chicago) become “a battle of Homeric proportions fought with Lilliputian resources.” They conclude, “It was an early sign that two great liberal causes—reform and unionization—could not be reconciled.” That’s a stunning statement. But I don’t think it’s true. Piereson and Riley’s antipodean construct—reform and unionism as inert antithetical entities immune to change—disregards the fact that both systems are evolving. Circumstances on the ground in 1993, when Walter Annenberg gave $500 million to re-energize public education, are different 22 years later. Those committed to education reform have learned important lessons and “unionism” itself is no longer a by-the-book movement, no dissenters allowed. A case in point are recent meetings by National Education Association (NEA) honchos to endorse Hillary Clinton. A decade ago everyone would toe the line, bend to the will of the executive committee. This time the NEA Political Action Committee (PAC) Council vote was hardly unanimous. Mike Antonucci reports that an unusual number of members abstained but if they had voted “no” the endorsement would have garnered a mere 58.17 percent plurality. At the board of directors meeting on Saturday, 40 members voted “no” and eight abstained. Then there’s the Badass Teachers Association, a caucus within NEA that is fervently campaigning for Bernie Sanders and irate at the way NEA President Lily Eskelson-Garcia manipulated members into doing her bidding. The Seventy Four calls it a “rank and file backlash” that sparks “new questions about political divides within the association.”

Not Your Parents Unions

So America's major teacher unions, NEA and American Federation of Teachers (AFT), aren't static entities any more. They have their own modulations and internal divisions. And they're not the only union resources available to teachers anymore. This recent report from Hechinger describes “a growing number of new organizations aimed at amplifying ‘teacher voice’—but outside of traditional union pathways. The groups go by names like Teach Plus, Educators 4 Excellence, and Leading Educators, and they offer teachers everything from media training to peer networking opportunities.” These are not your parents’ unions. These are unions of the new generation. (And we'll leave out Friedrichs v. California.) What about that static entity irreconcilable with unions that the authors categorize as “reform”? Are district-wide efforts for systemic change a lost cause? Let's look at Camden, New Jersey, one of the poorest and most violent cities in the country with one of the worst school systems. There, through a creative reconciliation of apparent opposites—charter schools and district schools— new, hybrid “renaissance schools” are game-changers for children and families. The leadership of Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard has united teachers, parents, residents and elected officials (not that there aren’t any dissenters). But the district’s commitment to transparency and outreach has won over many detractors. Certainly, it’s worthwhile to donate money to scholarship programs and individual charter school operators. That will help some kids right now. But here's a plea to you philanthropists out there: Don't give up on systemic change either, even if it involves the giant-slaying tasks of circumventing, as the authors say, “bureaucracies and interest groups that are responsible for the problems they hope to solve.” If we give up, we’re giving up on kids, and that's a concession unlikely to be made by unions, districts, reformers or anyone who cares about public education.  
Laura Waters writes about New Jersey education politics and policy for WHYY’s Newsworks and NJ Spotlight. She is a mother of four and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, for 10 years. An earlier version of this post appeared on her blog as Response to WSJ Op-Ed: Don't Give Up On Unions and Systemic School Reform.
Laura Waters
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...

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