Billionaires Vs. The Teachers’ Unions

With the current funding crisis, billionaires in the United States have been donating millions and millions of dollars to education. That’s good, right?

Not really. Their money comes with strings attached. Billionaires have a reform agenda that most people would not support if they knew the full agenda. They have been pushing it aggressively within the last few years, not only at the federal and state levels but also at the levels of individual school districts and local grassroots groups.

This post takes an in-depth look at one small example of how the billionaire reform agenda has affected local education policies in Seattle by showing how billionaires Fordham, Gates, and Broad influenced the local teacher contract negotiations. Why look at local politics? Because that’s where parents and teachers have the strongest voice, and if we can see what’s happening, we can make a difference.

In Seattle, one key link between the billionaires and the Seattle School District is the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a nonpartisan research and advocacy group committed to restructuring the teaching profession. Key funders include billionaires Fordham, Gates, and Broad.

Their “About Us” Web page gives a pretty clear idea of the goals of NCTQ, if you look past the fancy language. They want to make “significant reform in how we recruit, prepare, retain, and compensate teachers.”

Was the NCTQ planning to listen to teachers’ voices in making these reforms? Not so much. According to the “About Us” page, they were founded “to provide an alternative national voice to existing teacher organizations.” The NCTQ follows the lead of the Fordham Institute in describing teachers as “human capital.” You don’t listen to capital; you spend it.

Over the years, the NCTQ has collected in-depth information of collective bargaining agreements, including a database of one hundred agreements from all fifty states. It has an analysis of how collective bargaining agreements and state law work together to shape policy. And it is using this information to help enact the reforms it wants.

During the Seattle teacher contract recommendations, the NCTQ made recommendations to the district. Before negotiations began, it produced a report called “Human Capital in Seattle Public Schools.” This report was funded by the Gates Foundation and by an organization called The Alliance for Education, which is funded by billionaires Gates and Broad. It called for changes such as establishing merit pay, halting salary increases after teachers become certified, ending certain seniority privileges, increasing teachers’ work hours, evaluating teachers more strictly, making it harder for teachers to become certified, and using the results of student standardized tests to evaluate teachers and identify the “high performing” and “low performing” teachers.

This last point was most controversial for teachers. Can the results of student standardized tests accurately measure teacher performance? Education research says no, it does not. But education reformers badly want a number to measure performance, something that can be called an objective measurement, and something that can be used as a factor in layoffs and firings.

During contract negotiations, the NCTQ came out with a second report that analyzed the district and union proposals and giving its own recommendations. It listed them as either “important” or “must haves.”

“Must-haves” included:

  • Ending a “super-seniority” policy of factoring seniority into teaching assignments – which means that senior teachers can be laid off more easily
  • Establishing a system of merit pay
  • Using the results of student standardized tests to evaluate teachers

Curiously, in the final contract, the NCTQ got all of its “must-haves.” Why? Partly because it caught teachers and parents unaware and unprepared to make an effective resistance, and partly because the billionaire influence was hidden.

This teacher contract was only one step along the road to education reform for NCTQ and billionaires like Fordham, Gates, and Broad. State law has also advanced the billionaire reform agenda, and we can expect further changes to state law in the upcoming legislative session. This is an explicit goal of the NCTQ, as stated in its article “Invisible Ink in Teacher Contracts.”

This is only one small example of how billionaires have shaped education reform in Seattle. As the diagrams in the Seattleducation2010 blog post “The Lines of Influence in Education Reform” shows, billionaire money has gone to the League of Education Voters; to the Seattle school superintendent; to grassroots groups such as Alliance for Education and Stand for Children; to marketing firms; and to charter schools.

The good news is that if we can watch where reform efforts are coming from, we can start to make an important distinction between the changes that billionaires are advocating and the changes that parents, teachers, and students actually want. We can make an important distinction between billionaire-funded grassroots groups and true bottom-up grassroots groups. And then we can speak up.

Because if it’s a choice between the billionaires and the teachers, I’m going with the teachers.

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One response to “Billionaires Vs. The Teachers’ Unions

  1. Pingback: Charter Schools and the Reason Foundation « kristinking's Blog

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