Editor’s note: Tang vs. Kerr

How much editorial license should opinion writers be given?

HERE AT COMMONWEALTH we are great believers in open debate; that’s why we run so many opinion pieces. But sometimes the debate becomes so spirited that people want us to step in and become referees. One such instance was the recent back and forth between Jessica Tang, the president of the Boston Teachers Union, and Liam Kerr, director of the Massachusetts chapter of Democrats for Education Reform.

Tang wrote an opinion piece on October 30 defending teachers who end up in the so-called excess pool. The pool refers to those teachers who, because of any number of circumstances, find themselves without a classroom assignment and fail to get picked up by any Boston principal. Those in the excess pool are typically assigned some other work, such as a teacher’s aide, at their full salary.

Tang defended the teachers in the excess pool against what she described as a propaganda campaign run by Democrats for Education Reform. “DFER’s false and insulting narrative is not dissimilar from the divisive rhetoric of President Trump,” Tang wrote.

The Trump reference was too much for Kerr, who responded the following week with an article accusing Tang of weaving a “fact-free narrative” that mentioned Trump to divert attention from the wasteful spending that the excess pool represents. “With a thorny issue like the excess pool, a politician is better off pointing to Trump than proposing a solution,” he wrote.

It would have ended there, but Tang’s office strongly objected to three characterizations contained in Kerr’s article. We offered Tang the opportunity to respond to Kerr, as he did to her, but she declined. Instead, her office demanded that we publish corrections to Kerr’s piece.

First, her office said Kerr erred in implying the teachers in the excess pool are just sitting around doing nothing. We added a clarification to the article making clear that teachers in the excess pool do not have a permanent classroom assignment, but are assigned to work in schools in some other capacity. 

Second, Tang’s office said Kerr inaccurately claimed that her predecessor “announced he was retiring and she would be replacing him.” While her predecessor did step down and endorse her, Tang’s office pointed out that he lacked the authority to anoint her.

Finally, Tang’s office said Kerr’s claim that the union president was “selected without anything resembling an election” was false. Tang’s office pointed out that there was an election, although her lone opponent dropped out before a vote was taken.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

We added a clarification to Kerr’s piece to make clear that the teachers in the excess pool lack a permanent teaching assignment but don’t sit around doing nothing. We felt the second and third claims made by Tang’s office fell in a gray area. Kerr’s claims about Tang’s election, given that it was an uncontested race, seemed to fall within the editorial license granted to writers of opinion pieces.

We hope this article illuminates the positions of the two sides and we can move on. Our desire is to provide a platform for debate, not to play referee for every claim and counterclaim.