Fashion designer Kenneth Cole felt the wrath of many teachers this week after his company posted a billboard with a controversial slogan in reference to the ongoing education reform debate.
The advertisement posted above New York’s West Side Highway shows a picture of a woman in a red blazer and asks, in a harmless pun, “Shouldn’t everyone be well red?” But the offending statement is written below, in small letters: “Teachers’ Rights vs. Students’ Rights. ...”
According to the Wall Street Journal, the billboard was part of Cole’s venture into “socially conscious advertising.” The accompanying website, WhereDoYouStand.com, offers a forum for people to discuss a range of social and political issues. One of the questions on the site is, “Should underperforming teachers be protected?”
The ad alludes to the contention that teachers’ unions hinder student learning by protecting teachers’ jobs—one often cited by those on the so-called reform side of the debate. It’s even more inflammatory given that Cole is the brother-in-law of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is often at odds with the teachers’ unions.
GothamSchools broke the story last week, sparking a movement on social media sites for teachers to boycott Kenneth Cole products. Sabrina Stevens Shupe, a former Denver teacher who was active in the Save Our Schools March, started a petition calling for a boycott as well, garnering 600 signatures.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, took to Twitter, writing in response to the ad, “Don’t pit teachers against students. ... Take down your hurtful ad, Kenneth Cole!” And in a piece on Slate.com, David Sirrota says it’s part of the “ongoing campaign against organized labor.” He writes:
Perhaps the biggest problem with Cole's campaign, though, is how it forwards the "us-versus-them" notion that teachers' rights to due process in the workplace are automatically at odds with their students' interests. This so fundamentally misunderstands how education works that it perfectly underscores why a clothing corporation doesn't have much credibility on education issues.
The company has since taken the billboard down. According to GothamSchools, representatives for the company did not respond for comment but posted a message on the Kenneth Cole Twitter account: “We misrepresented the issue—one too complex for a billboard—and are taking it down.”
New York City’s United Federation of Teachers got perhaps the best one-liner in amidst the hoopla, writing in a statement: “We can only hope that the company’s fashion sense is more sophisticated than its treatment of complicated educational and political issues.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.