Can Unions Take Anti-DeVos Fervor, #ilovepublicschools Movement to States?

By Daarel Burnette II — February 07, 2017 6 min read
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President Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos—a billionaire philanthropist with a signature focus on school choice—to be education secretary galvanized an #ilovepublicschools movement that reached a crescendo at the national level with emotional rallies at senators’ offices, record-breaking phone campaigns, and a ton of political grandstanding.

But it’s safe to say that as a result of the Every Student Succeeds Act, much education policy in the coming years will be dictated at the state level, as my busy (and very tired) colleagues, Andrew and Alyson of the Politics K-12 blog have written plenty about.

With DeVos’ anticlimactic and long-predicted confirmation Tuesday (following a 24-hour Democratic talkathon), the question now becomes if teachers’ unions that opposed DeVos can redirect that sort of energy to statehouses where some crucial decisions will be made in the coming weeks.

Teachers’ unions spent mightily on Democratic candidates’ campaigns last year with little to show for it at the ballot box.

As I wrote last year, Federal Election Commission filings show that the National Education Association’s national office routed more than $21.9 million through its local affiliates’ PACs in campaign contributions through the third quarter of this year’s reporting cycle, ending Sept. 30. The American Federation of Teachers spent more than $10.3 million through the third quarter.

Of the more than 18,000 super-PACs in the country, the NEA’s was the 10th largest spender in campaign contributions last year, and the AFT’s was the 28th largest.

A large portion of the money came from a $20 annual fee the NEA added to its 3 million members’ dues in 2000. By the start of last year’s campaign season, the union had $82 million in the fund, according to a memo posted on its website.

The unions’ expensive campaign efforts mostly fell flat. Republicans now hold at least 31 governors’ seats, and Democrats hold 19. According to NCSL, Republications control 30 legislatures; Democrats control 12 legislatures, seven legislatures are split, and one legislature is unicameral non-partis.

Republicans are now fast at work to reduce the clout of teachers unions, cut statewide spending that would effect public schools’ pocketbooks, and expand school choice.

This legislative season, with all 50 states in session, is a pivotal one for several reasons.

About half of the states ended the last fiscal year with a deficit because of decreased sales tax revenue, and Republicans, many of whom ran on the mantra of cutting taxes, are looking for ways to cut state spending. Some of that will likely come out of school districts’ budgets, which could translate to teacher layoffs and cuts to the public schools thousands of parents confessed their love for in recent weeks. In states like Iowa and Connecticut, governors are touting single-digit percentage increases in spending, but unions are telling the public that those increases wouldn’t make up for increased costs and would result in cuts. States dependent on oil will have to cut millions out of their budget.

In some states like Mississippi and Wyoming, governors are proposing to toss their state’s funding formula altogether and replace them with formulas that critics say will result in cuts to schools with a disproportionate number of low-income students.

Other states are proposing to further dismantle teachers’ unions’ powers. Kentucky, which for the first time in many years, is now controlled by a Republican legislature and governor, passed a bill on the first day of the session that banned mandatory union membership. And some states that are dealing with dramatic teacher shortages, such as Indiana and Michigan, are pushing to loosen up teaching requirements.

The National Conference of State Legislatures told me that it’s getting questions from states about ways to eradicate teacher tenure and dramatically reduce the amount of money spent on teacher pensions.

Finally, more than 10 state legislatures (including Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky, Texas, West Virginia, Tennessee, Nevada, Iowa, Nebraska, Virginia, Maryland) are considering expanding charter schools and vouchers, two much-ballyhooed issues that became the center of the DeVos confirmation wars.

(I go into more detail on this year’s hot legislative topics here.)

Most importantly—and what could have long-term implications—are accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act that will be vetted by lawmakers this year and expected to be submitted to DeVos later this year. The plans cut across the education policy arena and can dramatically affect state accountability systems, teacher evaluations, and how states address achievement gaps between white students and students of color.

States have more policy authority under ESSA and DeVos will have less power (and may have less appetite) to push back in areas like testing and school turnarounds.

Education agencies across the country have put an exhaustive amount of effort into making their ESSA plans as public as possible. Many state plans are in draft form and can be found on state departments’ websites. One issue that’s already getting a lot of public attention is whether schools and districts should be ranked by letter grades or with dashboards.

A few weeks ago, I set up a column on my tweetdeck to follow the often trending #ilovepublicschools hashtag, which had become a sort of rallying cry against the DeVos nomination. There are pictures of teachers wearing matching red and blue #ilovepublicschools t-shirts posing in faculty lounges and parents posing with kids holding signs confessing their love for their local public school.

During one especially contentious DeVos confirmation hearing, several B- and C-list celebrities named the public school they graduated from. And there are lots and lots of mundane classroom activities in the feed.

As one of my favorite columnists, Farhad Manjoo with the New York Times, pointed out after the women’s marches Jan. 21 (attended by plenty of teachers) and last week’s immigration rallies, social media campaigns can be “fragile” and “could easily dissipate, like so much else that has come up against Mr. Trump.” He added, however, that “in such a short time, the movement has proved unusually adept. It can marshal crowds quickly, as we saw over the weekend, and it can go big, as we saw in the women’s marches, which some crowd scientists believe were the largest day of protest in American history.”

State education policy doesn’t typically feature grizzly bears or billionaires or 24-hour talkathons and I’ll be the first to say: State board meetings can be a real snoozer. But, they matter.

A lot of the press releases coming into my inbox in recent weeks promoting education policies and ESSA initiatives are couched in public versus private school language:

An e-mail blast sent from Maryland’s Education Association shortly after Devos’ confirmation read, “House Speaker Busch, Educators to Announce Plan to Protect Maryland Schools from Privatization.”

The letter featured a long list of legislative priorities, including increased public school funding, reduced testing and defeating several voucher and charter school bills. Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch, a Democrat, was quoted as saying, “Today, we reaffirm our commitment to Maryland’s public schools,” he said. “We will oppose Washington DC and Wall St. efforts to privatize and profit from educating our kids and make sure time in the classroom is spent learning and preparing for college and careers, not just standardized tests.”

The sanctity and health of public schools can mean many things to many different people (Teachers union foe and Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker famously declared in his state of the state address this year, “I love public schools). It’ll be up to advocates, politicians, and parents to explain to the general public how and why state policy matters.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.