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Talking About Race, Teachers And Schools:
How I Found Myself Featured In Right Wing Conspiracy Theory [UPDATED]

On Monday I opened up an email forwarded to me by a friend, and found Wall Street hedge fund manager and Democrats for Education Reform honcho Whitney Tilson madly hyperventilating. Here it is, exactly as it was sent to Tilson’s education reform listserv:

One of the leaders of the UFT in NYC, Leo Casey, recently played the race card against TFA, which is both shameful and ridiculous, as TFAers are 40% minority!  40% of Harvard’s graduating black seniors applied to TFA – and Casey is saying THIS?!

Leo Casey, vice president the New York City United Federation of Teachers, seems to believe that TFA is somehow bad because too many of the teachers are white. The film clip of his comments comes from EAGtv:

The teaching force in New York City has become steadily whiter under [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg and [former schools Chancellor Joel] Klein and it is connected I think in significant measure to the use of groups like Teach for America which are significantly whiter than the teaching force.

Yes, at the socialist-organized Left Forum, Casey tossed the race card on the table, accusing Teach For America of “whitening” New York City public schools.

Teach For America told EAGtv that its members comprise less than 1% of the teaching force in New York City and about 60% TFA members are white. Those facts are merely a distraction to Casey in his racial smear campaign.

My child’s teacher could be purple and look like Barney the Dinosaur – if he or she is an effective teacher and can help my son excel, so be it. Why are leftists always so focused on race?

Does Randi Weingarten, whose organization oversees UFT, stand by Casey’ sickening comments or repudiate them? As in the case of the California Federation of Teachers resolution honoring cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, she has remained silent.

It would behoove the unions to work in the best interest of children and make sure the best teacher possible is in front of every child in America, regardless of their skin color.

Teach For America is having a positive impact on some of America’s worst schools, and gutter attacks by the likes of Leo Casey and the United Federation of Teachers should not be tolerated.

Tilson’s tirade came as no surprise. Here’s the back story. Another union affiliated speaker at the Left Forum, Steve Lerner of SEIU, had his talk surreptitiously recorded by a Glenn Beck confidant, with excerpts then published on Beck’s Blaze website. Lerner’s discussion of protests directed against the Wall Street power brokers and banks, demanding that they pay their fair share of the burdens caused by an economic crisis they created through their sheer greed, was translated by Beck into a union campaign of “economic terrorism.” Over twenty-thousand Facebook “likes” of Beck’s attack piece and hundreds of far right wing blog attacks later, Lerner has became the latest bête noire of Beck’s far right wing conspiracy theories.*

When I learned of the clandestine taping of Lerner’s Left Forum presentation and Beck’s publication of it, I suspected that the same tactics would have been used for Left Forum presentations by other union officials. When I started receiving strange emails from people I did not know from places like Michigan, clueless about public education and as rude as you could be to a total stranger, I figured something was up. Shortly thereafter my suspicions were confirmed. Kyle Olson, the head of an organization called the Education Action Group (EAG), appeared on the far right-wing websites Big Government and  Townhall.COM with a piece entitled “NYC Teachers Union Plays Race Card Against Progressive Teachers Group.” The basis for this piece was a EAGtv piece posted on YouTube, in which a tape of a single sentence I uttered in one of my Left Forum presentations was sandwiched between lengthy commentaries from EAG. (EAG also published other YouTube selections from my presentations at the Left Forum without commentary, including a more lengthy discussion of why I believe it is imperative for teacher unions to organize charter schools.)

The moniker Education Action Group will ring a bell for many in the edu-blogophere and education world.  EAG has been part of a coordinated right wing strategy to use requests under Freedom of Information laws to intimidate teachers, professors and unionists by prying into their emails and personnel files. AFT President Randi Weingarten has been the subject of an EAG FOIL into her personnel file with the NYC Department of Education. Fred Klonsky, the president of a NEA Illinois local and a high profile edu-blogger at Fred Klonsky’s blog, was the subject of an EAG FOIL into his emails. Similar uses of FOILs have targeted emails from the Labor Studies programs in various public universities in Michigan and emails from Bill Cronin, a progressive professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was FOILed after he published an article on the organizations behind the attacks on teachers and other public sector workers around the county. As Steven Greenhouse pointed out in the New York Times, many in the academic world are deeply concerned about the academic freedom issues raised by transforming FOILs into weapons intended to intimidate the free expression of ideas unpopular on the far right.

EAG is a spin-off of the Mackinac Center, the Michigan based organization that filed the FOILs directed at the Labor Studies programs in the public universities of that state; Mackinac is itself a far right organization opposed to all unions. EAG has been active in Michigan long enough to inspire an EAGTruth web site which regularly exposes its misrepresentations and smears.

One of the websites which published Olson’s article on my Left Forum appearance, Big Government, belongs to Andrew Breitbart, a name Edwize readers may recognize as the author of a smear of Shirley Sherrod. Last July Sherrod, a civil rights movement veteran and United States Department of Agriculture official, had her speech before a NAACP audience misleadingly edited by Breitbart, who then published it on Big Government: the objective was to make it appear that she was a racist, when her true message was profoundly anti-racist. In an initial rush to judgment after Fox News showed the edited Breitbart version, she was fired from her job; once the entire tape of her speech was published and Breitbart’s deception was exposed, she received apologies from Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, the NAACP and many in the media that had passed on the Breitbart-Fox News disinformation.

Tilson’s denunciations were clearly inspired by the Kyle Olson article at Big Government and Townhall.COM. Indeed, he simply incorporated verbatim entire sections of the Olson article.  In so doing, Tilson joins Olson in adopting the techniques and tropes of right wing conspiracy theory à la Glenn Beck: the extraction of a single sentence, stripped of its context; an obsession with socialism that is reminiscent of McCarthyism; the accusation of race-baiting and reverse racism (racism against white people) directed at those who raise issues of civil rights and racial justice; ludicrous disinformation about collective bargaining, such as the claim that teacher union contracts keep teachers from coming into school early or staying late; and the use of outright misrepresentation, such as the false claim that Randi Weingarten was silent on a California resolution supporting Mumia Abu-Jamal when the record clearly shows otherwise.

Talking About Race
Since the EAG-Beck operatives recorded both of the Left Forum sessions where I spoke, they had close to four hours of tape. Yet they chose a single sentence on which to hang their attack: The teaching force in New York City has become steadily whiter under Bloomberg and Klein and it is connected I think in significant measure to the use of groups like Teach for America which are significantly whiter than the teaching force. It was a deliberate and calculated decision, I would contend, that they chose the moment when I raised an issue of racial justice, of how the clock was being turned back on important progress toward integration and diversity, thinking that it could be used against me, the UFT and the AFT. Learning nothing from the Shirley Sherrod episode and relying on the tendentious nature of all too much of the national conversation on race and education, first EAG and then Whitney Tilson decided that charges of  race-baiting and reverse racism would have wide resonance, however groundless they might be. Unfortunately for this political stratagem, right-wing conspiracy theories invariably run into those difficult things known as facts.

Let us start with the facts on the changing racial and ethnic composition of the teaching force in New York City public schools. In 2009, members of our Delegate Assembly brought to the body a concern about declining numbers of African-American and Latino teachers in New York City public schools. The UFT saw this question as a serious one, not to be taken lightly or used for some political advantage. For us, it was a question that was both an educational issue — there is a solid consensus in the education research that a diverse teaching force has positive educational benefits for both students of color and white students — and an issue of racial justice — the teaching force should be fully integrated, just as the armed forces are, yet African-American and Latino teachers are dramatically underrepresented in our schools. In response to the concern brought to it, the Delegate Assembly passed a resolution mandating the union to investigate the issue and report back to it with findings and recommendations. Then UFT President Randi Weingarten appointed a committee to undertake this work, and asked me to co-chair it with one of my retired predecessors as UFT Vice President for Academic High Schools, John Soldini.

Our committee researched the issue, and compiled data from New York State, New York City and other sources. As laid out in our report to the UFT Delegate Assembly, we found that there was a decline in the numbers of African-Americans and Latinos being recruited to teach in New York City public schools, a most serious problem in a field where they are significantly underrepresented. There are many ways in which this could be established, but the most unassailable method is with the NYC Department of Education’s own numbers.** In the 2000-01 school year, the last year before Joel Klein assumed full control of the public schools, the percentages of new teachers were at 27.2% for African-Americans and 14.3% for Latinos. As the accompanying chart shows,  there was a dramatic decline in these numbers during the Bloomberg-Klein years — including an almost 50% decline for African-Americans.

Our committee went about its work in a careful and deliberate way. Since the NYC Department of Education under Bloomberg and Klein had come to rely heavily upon the NYC Teaching Fellows and Teach for America [TFA] for recruiting new teachers, we decided it was important to determine what role, if any, these programs played in the decline of African-American and Latino teachers. We asked the then head of the New York City office of Teach for America, Jemina Bernard, and the NYC Department of Education official responsible for oversight of the Teaching Fellows program, Vicki Bernstein, to meet with us, so we could learn first-hand about the role their programs played in teacher recruitment. The results of our investigation were not entirely what one might have expected. We found that the cohorts of NYC Teaching Fellows reflected the demographics of the teaching force already in place:  while this program was not a force for furthering the integration of the teaching force, it was also clearly not driving the declining numbers of new African-American and Latino recruits. The numbers for Teach for America told a different story: the national demographics published on the Teach for America web site, which we were told by TFA officials reflected the numbers in the NYC TFA cohort, had percentages of African-American and Latino recruits which were much lower than even the declining numbers under Bloomberg and Klein: in 2010, for example, African-Americans recruits were 11% and  Latinos were 7% of the TFA cohort. The composition of the TFA cohorts in New York City was clearly part of the problem in the declining numbers of African and Latino teaching recruits.

In the commentary surrounding my sentence, the EAG spokesperson quotes Jeff Li, current head of the New York City TFA office, to the effect that 40% of the TFA cohort are teachers of color. In his denunciation of me, Whitney Tilson uses that same figure, presumably drawn from Li’s statement. Curious as to the origins of a number which was so at odds with what was published on the TFA website and what we had previously been told by TFA officials in the past, UFT researchers reached out to the national TFA press office and asked them to clarify the numbers of African-American and Latino teachers in the national TFA cohort and the NYC TFA cohort; we were told that an email with the numbers would be forthcoming in a matter of hours, but days later none has been received.

The difference between the Teaching Fellows cohort and the TFA cohort was, our committee discovered, an artifact of where they recruited. The Teaching Fellows took many of their recruits from public universities, predominantly the City University of New York and the State University of New York, while TFA recruited almost entirely from elite private universities, with Ivy League schools playing a major role. The racial and ethnic composition of the public universities is much more diverse and representative than that in elite private universities, so the Teaching Fellows were drawing from a pool which had many more potential African-American and Latino recruits. (For those who know their educational history, this pattern is not that surprising: the move to establish the state university system in New York after World War II drew its strongest advocates from the African-American community, which saw it as providing an access to higher education they had not been able to achieve with private universities.)

The difference between the Teaching Fellows and TFA led the committee to a recommendation which at first seemed counter-intuitive to us. We had initially thought that greater recruitment in historically black colleges could be part of the answer to creating a more diverse teaching force. Upon investigation, we found that the programs of study in most of those institutions and the small size of their graduating classes would not yield the numbers of potential recruits which could make a real difference in a teaching force the size of New York City. Rather, recruitment needed to be focused on public universities, as they had both large graduating classes with appropriate majors and significant concentrations of students of color. We prepared a resolution with our recommendations, and it was vigorously debated at our Executive Board and at the Delegate Assembly, which voted overwhelmingly to adopt it in January.

In short, what I said in that single sentence quoted by EAG and Tilson were simple statements of fact, supported by a very careful process of investigation and deliberation undertaken by the UFT.

What our committee’s report and the UFT’s resolution demonstrates is that the issue here is not, pace EAG and Tilson, whether white teachers (a category in which I belong) or TFA teachers are committed teachers, doing their very best for the students they serve. Whatever our background, all teachers enter this profession to make a difference in the lives of children. The issue lies in the policy decisions, made by those in power in institutions like the New York City Department of Education and Teach for America, that skew a teaching force away from the goal of diversity and racial integration which best serves the educational needs of students and the societal ends of racial justice.

What is particularly disturbing about the New York City public schools under Bloomberg and Klein is that the declining numbers of African-American and Latino teachers is not the only area of racial and ethnic integration where our schools are going backwards. The very low numbers of African-American and Latino students in the city’s elite specialized high schools — Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech — have been declining, and the one modest program that the Department of Education sponsored to increase racial integration and access for students of color, the Specialized High School Institute, has been undermined in that task by the regular reorganizations of the DoE structure and New York City’s unwillingness to fight a law suit which struck at the very heart of its ability to aid the students excluded from these schools. A reorganization of the city’s Gifted and Talented Programs in elementary schools led to a decline in the numbers of African-American and Latino students served by those programs. The claims of the New York City DoE that results on standardized state tests showed that the achievement gap between students of color and white students was narrowing were questionable from the start, but went up in a complete cloud of smoke when the grossly inflated scores on the state tests were re-normed and all the counterfeit gains disappeared. It is now abundantly clear that under Bloomberg and Klein, the achievement gap on state tests actually widened.

It is common for the advocates of corporate education reform and the privatization of education, from Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein in New York City to Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee in Washington DC, from Whitney Tilson’s misnamed Democrats for Education Reform to charter school management in the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, to expropriate the language and seize the moral high ground of the civil rights movement. Joel Klein never tires of saying that education is the civil rights issue of our time, and that those who oppose efforts to remake schools in the image and likeness of corporations are the George Wallaces of our day, blocking educational progress for African-American and Latino students in the same way that segregationist governors stood in the door of the schoolhouse to prevent its integration. I will leave it up to the reader to assess the use of that rhetoric in light of the actual record and practice of those who employ it.

These questions of race, teachers and schools are vital questions, ill-served by feverish denunciations of single sentences taken out of context. In the interests of an open, frank and honest debate, let me make a public offer to appear on the same stage as Whitney Tilson and address them in a serious public debate.

After the publication of this post, we received word from Teach For America on the demographics of their New York City cohort. African-Americans constitute 9% of the TFA cohort, Latinos make up 9.8%, Asian-Americans are 9.2%, Native Americans are less than 1%, at .4%, those who self-identify as multi-ethnic are 5.4%, and 4% describe themselves as “other.” The remainder classify themselves as white. What this means is that the New York City TFA cohort fits the general contour of the national TFA cohort described in the original post. Most significantly for our discussion, while African-Americans in New York City are slightly under the national numbers, Latinos are marginally higher. This data confirms the conclusion reached in the original post: reliance on TFA for new teacher recruitment has played a significant role in the declining numbers of African-American and Latino teacher recruits to New York City.


* Preceding Lerner in Beck’s rogue gallery was Frances Fox Piven, a Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at CUNY who had her classic work on organizing poor people’s movements caricatured by Beck into a call for “violent revolution.” While the paranoid style of Beck’s conspiracy theories feels like a walk through some sort of political Alice in Wonderland,  there are real world consequences that accompany them. First Piven and now Lerner have received numerous threats of violence and death threats, sent by the sort of people who think it is an act of courage to write an email “DIE YOU CUNT” to an eighty year old woman academic.

** Not surprisingly, this information has been treated as a state secret at the Tweed headquarters of the NYC Department of Education. The data in this table was obtained by a rather persistent news reporter who would not take ‘no’ for an answer: it ends with the 2006-07 school year, the point at which it was obtained. Given the hard budgetary times since 2008 and the hiring freeze over the last two years, there has been a dramatic decline in the numbers of new hires, leaving the situation essentially intact from the point this data ends.