Boston teachers union attack fires blanks

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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 classroom assignment. Under the current contract, they must continue to be paid. 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 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.

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.

Rebecca Rutenberg