Wall Street tycoons and hedge fund operators have brought America the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, leading to yawning chasms in tax revenues and serious cuts to education funding. From the moment the crisis took hold, the UFT has been waging an all-out campaign to minimize the cuts to all public schools, district and charter. Joining us in that battle have been many community, education advocacy and parent allies. But entirely missing in action have been the organizations of charter school management which are the beneficiaries of Wall Street largesse.
Both the NYC Charter School Center and New York Charter School Association have instead attempted to use the economic crisis and cuts in education funding to pit charter school against district school, charter teacher against district teacher, charter parent against district parent and charter student against district student. They see in it not a potential educational disaster for schools and students, but a political opportunity to be used in their crusade to keep charter school teachers divided from other public school teachers, the better to prevent them from organizing into a union.
For over a year now, ever since he came to the Charter School Center from his position as honcho of Wal-Mart’s charter work, CEO James Merriman has been trying to organize a protest by charter school teachers outside of the UFT offices. To accomplish that goal, he cynically blames the union for the funding cuts to schools that he and the rest of charter school management have done nothing to fight. During last year’s budget battles, he engaged in a heavy-handed effort at organizing which came up empty. Frustrated at his inability to pull off a real protest by charter teachers, Merriman worked with the co-principal of Renaissance Charter School to produce a rump effort on March 26.
While an appeal to participate in the March 26 action was sent to all conversion charter schools, Renaissance was the only school present. Just as importantly, there were only a handful of Renaissance teachers participating: the overwhelming majority of Renaissance teachers recognized the effort as a ‘divide and conquer’ ploy by the Charter School Center, and were not prepared to be its pawns. A number of Renaissance teachers emailed the UFT explicitly dissociating themselves from the action. But none of that stopped Merriman from announcing it on his blog, as if it were a genuine protest and as if the Charter School Center was a disinterested observer.
Taking a page out of special effects director James Cameron’s movie script, Merriman’s blog proves that you don’t need to stay true to reality to frame a point. In Avatar, Cameron takes us to a far off world filled with blue people in order to outline our own struggle with conservation. Similarly, Merriman uses his astro-turf “rally” to suggest that grass roots charter school teachers are at odds with their union.
But reality has a way of intruding into such contrived propaganda. Merriman’s blog publishes a photograph, reproduced here, which purports to show “UFT members” protesting on March 26. One person in the photograph is even holding a sign that claims she pays dues to the UFT. In reality, the person holding that sign is not a UFT member but a member of Renaissance Charter School management. The next person in line in the photo is a school aide. There is not a single UFT member from Renaissance charter school in the photograph – not surprising, given how few were present. The NYC Charter Center worked hard to make this representation seem realistic, but you just can’t make blue avatars into red people.
Within a few days, Merriman’s blog “let the avatar out of the bag” with a post proclaiming his true intentions: an effort to drive the UFT out of charter schools. It is a violation of state public employee relations law for management – both at the Charter School Center and in a particular charter school – to be organizing efforts at union de-certification, but that does not appear to trouble the man from Wal-Mart.
What should not be lost in these Machiavellian power plays is the refusal of Merriman and others in charter school management to join the UFT in taking practical steps that would actually help charter schools in these financially difficult times. Part of the package of reforms to charter school legislation proposed by the UFT in January were proposals to reduce the lag in the charter school funding formula, to fund charter schools for the actual numbers of high needs students they serve and for moving TRS pensions off of charter school books. But Merriman and others in charter school management showed no interest in taking up these measures; instead, they focused entirely on battling the measures to prohibit for profit management of charter schools and on ensuring that charter schools educate their share of high needs students.
That’s the agenda of Merriman and the New York City Charter School Center: for profits, not for schools.