Boston teachers union attack fires blanks

Tying DFER to Trump is lame substitute for actually addressing excess pool issue

LAST NOVEMBER, Democrats for Education Reform held our election night party at the same Boston hotel as the state Democratic Party and the anti-charter ballot campaign. I was one of the last to exit, and happened to leave at the same time as Jessica Tang, the incoming president of the Boston Teachers Union. With the charter ballot measure headed for a rout even worse than expected, you could forgive her for forgetting about Trump for a few minutes to relish victory and consider the political organization she was inheriting.

During the ballot question, the job of stoking the “education wars” fell not to Tang but to Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. While Madeloni had the largest public role in the campaign, she was both term-limited and politically limited. A Jill Stein voter who once called President Obama an “imperialist asshole,” Madeloni would never have broad influence.

But Tang was different. The first new BTU president in two decades, she was selected without anything resembling an election – her predecessor announced he was retiring and she would be replacing him. As a Harvard alum who could cut once-a-generation backroom deal by age 35, Tang could be a force in Massachusetts politics for decades to come – and now she was riding the wave of the highest-profile defeat for education reformers in the country.

Such victories can be tricky, though. The statewide charter ballot question was unpopular for logical political reasons. Future fights would likely be far less publicly popular. The BTU is now trying to simultaneously focus the public on supposedly draconian budget cuts to the Boston Public Schools (the budget has in fact grown by $150 million since 2013) while settling a contract nudging the average teacher salary north of $100,000 – all while maintaining unpopular and budget-busting provisions like the “excess pool.” The pool refers to those teachers who, because of a school closure or restructuring due to chronically low performance, find themselves without a permanent classroom assignment. Under the current contract, they must continue to be paid while working in a temporary position alongside another teacher or in some other capacity. Boston school leaders want to be able to terminate those teachers in the pool who fail to get hired by a school principal for a new permanent position. The union objects.

When your top messages are at odds, the solution is clear: find a scapegoat. And so we get arguments that follow a pretty unimaginative storyline — tie all reforms to Trump, and keep the broader “education wars” going.

Which brings us to Tang’s recent CommonWealth article criticizing Democrats for Education Reform, while somehow managing to invoke Trump. Tang artfully weaves a fact-free narrative, including zero quotes from DFER (while bemoaning language used by reporters from both major daily newspapers) to build a case that DFER is “callous.”

With a thorny issue like the excess pool, a politician is better off pointing to Trump than proposing a solution. The political strategy all makes sense, although I would be remiss not to point out two problems.

One, there is not even a hint of a solution in Tang’s piece – even offering a five-year limit on teachers remaining in the pool or $500,000 buyouts would start a conversation that would return us to budget priorities and challenging public policy choices.

Two, she falls prey to an old challenge for people who “went to college in Cambridge” by citing the fact that someone in the excess pool has – gasp! – an “advanced degree from Harvard.” A great man-on-the-street question: “Should someone with an advanced degree from Harvard be able to receive their full salary even if none of the 150 managers of an organization hires them … or should that money be used on something else?”

At the end of a long night last November, at the end of a long campaign, Tang should have been celebrating. But she was not. The DFER party was filled with people who thought more charter schools would be good for kids, but who were nauseated and devastated by what the Clinton loss would mean for immigrants, women – and for those same kids. Tang looked like she felt the same way about keeping the charter cap – important, but a speck compared to this awful universe-shifting moment for our country.

Meet the Author

Tang may share most values and priorities with DFER, but politics is required as the leader of a political entity – and she seems pretty good at it. Anyone who is named successor as a union president without a competitive election has to be politically savvy. And I give her credit for trying here. With both Boston daily newspapers, the mayor, voters, and common sense on the other side, the best bet on the excess pool probably is just to say, “Look over there! Trump!”

Liam Kerr is director of the Massachusetts chapter of Democrats for Education Reform.

Clarification: This piece has been updated to make clear that teachers in the “excess pool” have no permanent classroom assignment, but are assigned to work in another capacity in schools.

  • Colum Whyte

    Liam Kerr, once again, is misinformed and misinforming; but that’s his job. If the BTU were “shooting blanks” as Kerr argues, then why does he feel the need to write an article in Commonwealth Magazine? The fact is he is probably worried about his evaluation, which according to Glassdoor is based on “what you achieve, not how many hours you click in the office.” Kerr hasn’t achieved much lately.
    Indeed, the public is starting to see a how the DeVos corporate reform agenda starkingky overlaps with policies that DFER pushes, no matter how much they try to run away from it. In fact DFER accepted money from a group that DeVos founded, called the American Federation for Children. “Nope, nothing to see here, move on,” doesn’t quite work. DFER should own the fact that they were predominantly founded by and are still supported by hedge fund managers, not educators. That’s why employees like Kerr pontificate about how eliminating the “excess pool” for “unwanted teachers” is NOT about saving money on human capital, but putting the best teachers in the clsssroom. Wrong. BPS hired ove 500 brand new teachers last year. Inexperienced, cheaper teachers are NOT a better fit for classrooms than more expensive, experienced teachers with exemplary and proficient evaluations. This policy push is all about creating an education system that does NOT value experience, but values the cheapest to hire candidates, cycle through them, and then save additional monies on pensions and healthcare costs. That’s the hedge funder philosophy – a philosophy whose grass roots are seeded in money, not what’s best for kids. We must decide who we will trust as a society – organizations such as the BTU – founded and funded by licensed teachers, or organizations like DFER founded and funded by bankers. Trust teachers, not hedge fund managers, with education. It’s common sense.

  • cravingfacts

    Oh Mr. Kerr, where to begin? Perhaps right at the beginning, when you suggest that Jessica Tang wanted to “consider the political organization she was inheriting.” She didn’t inherit that organization, sir, she built it as the BTU director of organizing. Madeloni may have been the face of No on 2 that you saw, but the door-knockers and community organizers, the taxpayers and the parents — we know Jessica.

    But let’s keep going, because your misrepresentations and false statements don’t stop in the first paragraph. “…She was selected without anything resembling an election – her predecessor announced he was retiring and she would be replacing him.” This one is just a plain lie. I sort of understand when people tell half-truths or intentionally mislead. It feels like that’s what persuasion has devolved into these days. But straight up lies? That’s some chutzpah. The BTU president never did any such thing. Two people were running for president. One of them, Jessica Tang, had strong support within the union membership, particularly on the heels of her incredible work on the No on 2 campaign, but also because she had been working for years as a Director of Organizing, changing the tone of communication coming out of the BTU, partnering with families and with many different community organizations. Then the outgoing president endorsed her. The second candidate — a strong candidate with a significant minority of backers — decided to drop out. You may not like the way things turned out, but that doesn’t make a process undemocratic.

    So we have a distortion and a lie. How about we bring it home with a logical fallacy? “Should someone with an advanced degree from Harvard be able to receive their full salary even if none of the 150 managers of an organization hires them … or should that money be used on something else?” Sigh. No teacher is eligible for hire from all 150 managers in the BPS organization. The teacher might apply for an open kindergarten slot, or for an open AP Biology slot — but it’s not really logical to think that the teacher would be applying for both. Of course Mr. Kerr may not be intentionally obtuse here: after all, according to his DFER bio, he has never been a teacher, never worked in a school building. He might actually be as ignorant as he portrays himself. Either way, those teachers are NOT rejected by all managers. While they may not have been hired by the few managers who had openings in their license, they are then offered to principals for free. And suddenly, these teachers who were previously considered “not good enough for my building” become hot commodities, and principals have to enter a competitive bidding process to get those teachers working in their buildings. So the question really is: “Should a district that says it is over budget spend an estimated $30 million dollars just to allow one principal to reject a teacher without ever interviewing them even when another principal who worked with them for 180 days evaluated them as proficient and a third principal competed for the chance to give them a job in their building?” Seems like a waste of money… unless the goal is really breaking up unions by creating wedge issues rather than actually funding schools and improving the education of children.

  • jshore

    Naughty, naughty Liam Kerr to suggest that President Tang was appointed by Retired President Richard Stutman is a lie meant to disempower her to the public (that’s right from the Trump playbook Liam! ;-o ) To suggest otherwise is disrespectful to President Tang and to Boston Teachers! BTU members elected Jessica Tang as President of the Boston Teacher Union. We support her 100%!

    I can only suspect that you are trying to disempower President Tang, and mislead the public because, unlike the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), the BTU does not, and never will, have term limits. We are a small nimble union, if the BTU membership doesn’t like the direction of our leadership, we will let them know by voting them out!

    I’m sure President Tangs popularity with the BTU membership, families, local politicians, and the community at large, sends shivers down the spines of DFER’s dark monied vulture investors looking to turn Boston into an “Empowerment Zone” aka “Innovation Partnership Zones” so they can backdoor it and take over the Boston Public Schools! That’s not in the best interests of the people who live here and send their children to Boston Public Schools…we’re not going to let that happen!

  • jshore

    In teaching, there is a difference between “expert” and “novice” skill sets, and the former BPS hiring system is used in many large districts because it is fair, in the best interest of children and schools, and the BPS should return to it. No one is applauding the current hiring approach and dismantling the teacher hiring system is nothing to be proud of!

    It replaces BPS high-quality, certified Teachers with unqualified, uncertified TFA (Teach for America) “corps members” and TNTP (The New Teacher Project – Michelle Rhee’s organization) “fellows.” These people are given 5 weeks of “training” and swift-boated on a waiver into a classroom as the “teacher of record.” It is a question of equity, this wouldn’t be happening in Wellesley or Weston where DFER supporters send their children to school!

    Boston Public Schools is the number 1 urban school district in the nation and our experienced, high-quality teaching staff is the reason! Our excessed high-quality teachers have been assigned to some of the district’s lowest level schools, who have some of Boston’s neediest children, and principals love having these high-quality teachers in their school! They educate children, teach classes, grade students, and fully participate in the schools they are assigned to. Principals are able to reduce class size, support inclusion of SWD and ELL/SIFE students, and offer more core and elective subject classes, which the school would not be able to offer students.

    Mr.Kerr never mentions that Boston Public Schools pays an additional “finders fee” of $4-6,000 for each of the TFA corps members and TNTP Fellows they hire. He never mentions that principals were given an additional $6-10,000. stipend for “mentoring” unqualified, uncertified, TFA “corps members!” In addition to a first year teacher’s salary these corps members received an additional $1,250 stipend! That’s a nice chunk of change for a principal who is here to collect an “urban line” for their resume before they move to greener pastures, and a financial reason not to hire our experienced teachers!

    The District has spent millions of dollars on professional development to develop a high quality teaching workforce. Excessed teachers have excellent evaluations but have not been assigned as the “teacher of record” in a classroom because Boston Public Schools violated the spirit of the BPS/BTU Teachers contract. Boston Public Schools needs to rethink their position and, if it want to “save millions” it is purporting to be spending, return to the former hiring system that worked!

  • Mhmjjj2012

    The only “fact free” commentaries appearing in CommonWealth are those written by Democrats for Education Reform operatives. By the way, CommonWealth should clearly identify Democrats for Education Reform as a New York based Political Action Committee (PAC).

  • jshore

    Is this article an advertorial? Interested Observer’s comment went missing and they had 2 “Likes.,” one from Colum Whyte and one from me. We certainly didn’t find anything inappropriate with it. Luckily it is back now. My comment about the Boston Public Schools excessed teachers is also missing. Does it need to be reposted too?

    • Interested Observer

      I reposted, this time from an account not linked through Facebook. The comment lasted 7 minutes before it deleted. Trying to assume best intentions here. Could this be a glitch?

      • jshore

        I’m not sure. The only other time I’ve seen something like this happen is when an organization was writing an op ed opinion piece, like this, and paying the news paper to post it. When I called the editor about it he explained that it was a paid “advertorial,” even though it looked like a newspaper article. Who knew!

        • Interested Observer

          Hah — not exactly “fake news” but definitely the cousin thereof! :)

  • Interested Observer

    Shortening this post, trying to avoid being targeted as spam:
    You suggest that Jessica Tang wanted to “consider the political organization she was inheriting.” She didn’t inherit that organization; she built it as the BTU director of organizing. Madeloni may have been the face of No on 2 that you saw, but the door-knockers and community organizers, the taxpayers and the parents — we know Jessica.

    “…She was selected without anything resembling an election – her predecessor announced he was retiring and she would be replacing him.” This one is just a plain lie. The BTU president never did any such thing. Yes, the outgoing president did endorse her, but she won her election. You may not like the way things turned out, but that doesn’t make a process undemocratic.

    “Should someone with an advanced degree from Harvard be able to receive their full salary even if none of the 150 managers of an organization hires them … or should that money be used on something else?” No teacher is eligible for hire from all 150 managers in the BPS organization. The teacher might apply for an open kindergarten slot, or for an open AP Biology slot — but it’s not really logical to think that the teacher would be applying for both. Besides, those teachers are NOT rejected by all managers. When the teachers are available for hire from central budget instead of a school-based budget, suddenly these teachers who were previously considered “not good enough for my building” become hot commodities, and principals have to enter a competitive bidding process to get those teachers working in their buildings.

    So the question really is: “Should a district that says it is over budget spend an estimated $30 million dollars just to allow one principal to reject a teacher without ever interviewing them even when another principal who worked with them for 180 days evaluated them as proficient and a third principal competed for the chance to give them a job in their building?” Seems like a waste of money… unless the goal is really breaking up unions by creating wedge issues rather than actually funding schools and improving the education of children.

  • jshore

    In teaching, there is a difference between “expert” and “novice” skill sets, and the former BPS hiring system is used in many large districts because it is fair, in the best interest of children and schools, and the BPS should return to it. No one is applauding the current hiring approach and dismantling the teacher hiring system is nothing to be proud of!

    It replaces BPS high-quality, certified Teachers with unqualified, uncertified TFA (Teach for America) “corps members” and TNTP (The New Teacher Project – Michelle Rhee’s organization) “fellows.” These people are given 5 weeks of “training” and swift-boated on a waiver into a classroom as the “teacher of record.” It is a question of equity, this wouldn’t be happening in Wellesley or Weston where DFER supporters send their children to school!

    Boston Public Schools is the number 1 urban school district in the nation and our experienced, high-quality teaching staff is the reason! Our excessed high-quality teachers have been assigned to some of the district’s lowest level schools, who have some of Boston’s neediest children, and principals love having these high-quality teachers in their school! They educate children, teach classes, grade students, and fully participate in the schools they are assigned to. Principals are able to reduce class size, support inclusion of SWD and ELL/SIFE students, and offer more core and elective subject classes, which the school would not be able to offer students.

    Mr. Kerr never mentions that Boston Public Schools pays an additional “finders fee” of $4-6,000 for each of the unqualified TFA corps members and TNTP Fellows they hire. He never mentions that principals were given an additional $6-10,000. stipend for “mentoring” unqualified, uncertified, TFA “corps members!” In addition to a first-year teacher’s salary these corps members received an additional $1,250 stipend! That’s a nice chunk of change for a principal who is here to collect an “urban line” for their resume before they move to greener pastures, and a financial reason not to hire our experienced teachers!

    The District has spent millions of dollars on professional development to develop a high-quality teaching workforce. Excessed teachers have excellent evaluations but have not been assigned as the “teacher of record” in a classroom because Boston Public Schools violated the spirit of the BPS/BTU Teachers contract. Boston Public Schools needs to rethink their position and, if it BPS wants to “save millions” they purport to be spending, they need to return to the former hiring system that worked!

  • Fred Grosso

    Look over there, Kerr! He has nothing of substance to offer.

    • Patience Temple

      Fred Grosso…said it best!

  • Pingback: DFER Speaks Truth to Power - EduMom()

  • jshore

    Shortening this post so not to be targeted as “spam” worked for Interested Observer. So let me try:
    Part 1.
    In teaching, there is a difference between “expert” and “novice” skill sets, and the former BPS hiring system is used in many large districts because it is fair, in the best interest of children and schools, and the BPS should return to it. No one is applauding the current hiring approach and dismantling the teacher hiring system is nothing to be proud of!

    It replaces BPS high-quality, certified Teachers with unqualified, uncertified TFA (Teach for America) “corps members” and TNTP (The New Teacher Project – Michelle Rhee’s organization) “fellows.” These people are given 5 weeks of “training” and swift-boated on a waiver into a classroom as the “teacher of record.” It is a question of equity, this wouldn’t be happening in Wellesley or Weston where DFER supporters send their children to school!

  • jshore

    Now Part 2:
    Boston Public Schools is the number 1 urban school district in the nation and our experienced, high-quality teaching staff is the reason! Our excessed high-quality teachers have been assigned to some of the district’s lowest level schools, who have some of Boston’s neediest children, and principals love having these high-quality teachers in their school! They educate children, teach classes, grade students, and fully participate in the schools they are assigned to. Principals are able to reduce class size, support inclusion of SWD and ELL/SIFE students, and offer more core and elective subject classes, which the school would not be able to offer students.

    Mr. Kerr never mentions that Boston Public Schools pays an additional “finders fee” of $4-6,000 for each of the unqualified TFA corps members and TNTP Fellows they hire. He never mentions that principals were given an additional $6-10,000. stipend for “mentoring” unqualified, uncertified, TFA “corps members!” In addition to a first-year teacher’s salary these corps members received an additional $1,250 stipend! That’s a nice chunk of change for a principal who is here to collect an “urban line” for their resume before they move to greener pastures, and a financial reason not to hire our experienced teachers!

    The District has spent millions of dollars on professional development to develop a high-quality teaching workforce. Excessed teachers have excellent evaluations but have not been assigned as the “teacher of record” in a classroom because Boston Public Schools violated the spirit of the BPS/BTU Teachers contract. Boston Public Schools needs to rethink their position and, if it BPS wants to “save millions” they purport to be spending, they need to return to the former hiring system that worked!