For the first time, during the Democratic Presidential debates from Flint, Michigan, on Monday candidates Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders actually broached the subject of education and "fixing" the nation's public schools a phrase that regrettably has become synonymous with the rhetoric of corporate education reform.
The lack of conversation by either candidate on education beyond cursory remarks around wanting "good teachers," sounding like more double speak for the failing schools narrative, may be due in part to the early endorsement of Senator Clinton by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) back in July of 2015. Amidst great controversy, AFT president Randi Weingarten announced the union's support of Clinton with little input from the union's membership.
The rush to support raised serious concerns for some teachers. They questioned not only the benefit but also the process by which the union leadership decided to back Clinton. Rather than forcing candidates to work for teachers' votes, the endorsement may have stifled debate as Sanders and others assumed unanimous teacher support for Clinton. It is an issue that is not only pertinent to national politics but local unions as well.
Interestingly, Weingarten, who engineered the boost for Clinton was once president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York during Clinton's tenure as senator there. As one of the largest of the AFT's locals, UFT has also become a battleground on these larger issues during its own upcoming election for President.
This is due in part to the candidacy of New York City parent and Special Education Teacher Jia Lee who has challenged current UFT President Michael Mulgrew for the office. Her decision to run is due in large part to her desire to make the union leadership more accountable and to, in her words, "put the power back in the hands of the classroom educators who bare the brunt of hastily made education policies."
In her bid to become UFT president, Lee says she represents a large, but mostly silent body of teachers who remain frustrated with the union for not challenging damaging education polices.
Although this is her first time running for Union president, Lee is certainly no stranger to activism. Despite considerable risk to her position, she has been at the forefront of several key battles including the fight to end high stakes testing, efforts to shift funding away from corporate charters like Success Academy and back to bona fide public schools, and the struggle to decouple teacher evaluations from testing. This is in addition to 8 years of service as a UFT Chapter Leader and one of the prime movers behind the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a caucus within the UFT committed to the same core values of transparency and justice.
An impassioned advocate for sane education policies that protect rather than imperil students, Lee's energy is infectious. Her ability to clearly articulate the concerns of parents and teachers, for instance, was on full display in January of 2015 when she testified before the United States Senate while it considered re-authorization of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.
In her bid to become UFT president, Lee says she represents a large, but mostly silent body of teachers who remain frustrated with the union for not challenging damaging education polices. "Our schools are in crisis, in large part," she explained in an interview back in October, "because the current union leadership is complicit in bad policy and continues to tell us that this is the best they can do." She continued, "it's not the time for us to re-negotiate what has already proven to be disastrous, it's time for teachers to come together with the community and chart a new course for our union.... We are going to take back our union and lead a fight for the schools our children deserve," she concluded.
Lee's supporters are used to such soaring rhetoric. Her candidacy, along with the national election, has brought renewed interest and excitement around the upcoming UFT election in which Lee will head a joint slate of teachers representing a united front of MORE and the New Action Caucus.
Lee was adamant that her candidacy was more than just a critique of Mulgrew, but an opportunity to share an alternate vision of union engagement that would place the UFT on the front lines of pushing back against the corrosive effects of corporate education reform. It is also, she maintains, about restoring real representation back to the union.
As Lee conceptualized the problem, less than a quarter of current educators participated in the last election leaving the contest in the hands of a significant block of retirees, many of who no longer reside in the city and are unaware of the current calamity facing public school educators. Rather than reaching out to the city's teachers, Lee notes Union leaders like Mulgrew spent more time currying favor with this group, whose concerns are very different from those of active teachers. As a result, the union has pursued policies and actions that have further hurt rather than helped teachers.
Lee critically notes that increasing voter turnout will be vital in the upcoming election. MORE, for example, captured just 23% of the active teacher vote in the last election. If the Caucus hopes to win, they will to not only improve that number but also rally teachers around the idea that transformation is possible with a change in leadership. Working in conjunction with the New Action Caucus, Lee believes that MORE can not only increase voter participation but also revive the UFT as a body for contending not only for teacher's rights but social justice.