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Teacher unions: An agenda that has little to do with kids

• Mike Thomas

It appears that Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers at least heard Denisha Merriweather.

Merriweather was raised in the poorest neighborhoods of Jacksonville and, by her own account, was destined to drop out of school after twice being held back. But her godmother put her in a private school, which was made possible by Florida’s Tax-Credit Scholarship program.

Merriweather flourished in the new environment, graduated with honors and went on to obtain a college degree. Now she is aiming for graduate school. There is no doubt that she now has a bright future because of Florida’s school choice options.

The young woman acknowledged that when she introduced Gov. Jeb Bush at the 2014 National Summit on Education Reform.

“You made my scholarship possible,’’ she told him. “You gave me the chance to change my life.”

The next day Weingarten responded to the summit with her customary criticisms of reform, but there was this interesting twist.

“We want to help all kids,’’ she wrote. “But Bush’s policies will only help some.”

It may be her first-ever acknowledgement that giving poor families access to private schools helps students. She might now consider that if her union wasn’t engaged in a pitched battle against giving more parents’ choice, more students would be helped.

Weingarten’s strategy of helping “all kids’’ entails taking away choice from poor families and forcing their children to attend unionized schools.  She would continue to fight tenure reforms that remove ineffective teachers from the classrooms of poor children. She would remove accountability provisions that ensure schools teach poor children. She would agree to higher academic standards for poor children as long as the children didn’t really have to master them.

The job of union leaders is simple and straightforward. It is to protect union jobs. In California, the union took that mandate so far as to block legislation that would allow school districts to more easily dismiss teachers accused of sexual crimes against children.

How does that fit with Weingarten’s call for schools that are “safe, collaborative and welcoming environments for students, parents, educators and the broader community?’’

Such politics led to nine students filing the Vergara v. California lawsuit, demanding the right to effective teachers. During the trial, Harvard researcher Thomas Kane testified that white students were much more likely to get effective teachers than students of color. This imbalance hurt the neediest students and widened the achievement gap. Furthermore, ineffective teachers were kept on the job by onerous tenure protections.

Based on the evidence, a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge threw out the state’s tenure laws because they denied children access to an equal education.

Predictably, Weingarten called the decision “a sad day for public education.’’ As she so often does, she tried to camouflage her union agenda by equating it with supporting “public education.’’

Undeniably there are public schools that do an amazing job educating poor kids. Undeniably, there are schools that do not.

Thanks to the reforms advocated and implemented through Governor Bush’s leadership, there are fewer Florida schools in that latter category but they still exist. In one of them, in Pinellas County, the school superintendent complained about the difficulty he was having  moving out ineffective teachers because of the collective bargaining agreement.

And so the question is how much longer children who are in Denisha Merriweather’s predicament should have to wait for Weingarten’s union “to help all students?”

If you ask Denisha, the answer is not one more day.



About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at