Jonah Edelman on outfoxing teachers' unions: Transcribed remarks

UPDATE: We just received a transcript of the whole session here.

Recently we posted  the observations of Susan Barrett, a disaffected parent member of Stand for Children, which started as a grassroots organization in Oregon that has now gone nationwide; and, as Susan argued, changed its goals, governance and tactics along the way.

Jonah Edelman,  its founder and the son of children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman,  has raised millions of dollars in funds from the Gates and Walton Foundations, as well as many top business executives, and now pursues policies central to the corporate education agenda, including support of charter school expansion, the evaluation of teachers based on test scores and the elimination of  their seniority protections.

Edelman spoke on a panel at the recent Aspen Ideas Festival (June 27-July 3, 2011) about how the organization, aided by the millions of dollars they raised from top Chicago corporate executives, was able to influence Illinois state legislators to get SB7 passed, landmark legislation that severely curtailed teachers’ rights and job security, and that has been hailed by Arne Duncan and other corporate reformers as a model for the nation.

During his remarks, Edelman boasted that his organization and other well-funded allies will be able to replicate this success in states throughout the country.   After Aspen Institute posted the video of this session, so many people blogged and tweeted about it that it was taken down, though it is back up here.   In case they take it down again, a key excerpt is still posted on Fred Klonsky’s blog here.

Edelman  has since apologized for what was a remarkably frank account of how power politics worked to their advantage in Illinois, when you have millions of dollars and the mainstream media on  your side.  The rest of the country should be forewarned.   Caroline Grannan transcribed the key 14-plus minutes of Edelman’s talk, while omitting some minor asides, indicated with ellipses:

… when Bruce Rauner [apparently Chicago venture capitalist Bruce V. Rauner] … asked, after seeing that we passed legislation in several states including Colorado, that we look at Illinois, I was skeptical. After interviewing 55 different folks in the landscape – the Speaker of the House, Senate President, minority leadership, education advocates … I was very surprised to see that there was a tremendous political opening that I think Bruce wasn’t even aware of.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers, still inexplicably, went to war with Speaker Madigan [Michael J. Madigan, D-Chicago, Speaker of the Illinois House], who Jim cited as a very, very powerful figure – speaker for 27 years with the exception of of a couple years … over an incremental pension reform. And Jim [James Schine Crown, Chicago financier and member of Aspen Institute Board of Trustees, who is at the speakers' table with Edelman] and many others are diehard advocates for pension reform in Illinois, and the pension reform that happened in 2010 is not the reform that’s needed in Illinois, but it was a first step, only affecting future employees.

The union could have – well, probably should have – thanked Madigan for not going further. Instead, they decided that the $2 million they had been giving him reliably for election campaigns – they would take that away … that they would refuse to endorse any Democrat who voted for that legislation, even those that had been loyal supporters for years. They went to the AFL-CIO trying to get them to do the same.

So, a major breach … You’re starting to see that in other states where Democrats who are still in control are having to address these terrible fiscal issues, and in so doing, there’s often conflicts that are arising.

… We decided to get involved in midterm elections, which many advised us against doing. … My position was we had to be involved to show our capabilities, to build some clout. … While there were a lot of folks, I think, who thought the Republicans were going to take over in Illinois, our analysis was that Madigan would still be speaker. … That wasn’t what I think a lot of our colleagues wanted to hear. …

So our analysis was he’s still going to be in power, and as such the raw politics were that we should tilt toward him, and so we interviewed 36 candidates in targeted races. … I’m being quite blunt here. The individual candidates were essentially a vehicle to execute a political objective, which was to tilt toward Madigan. The press never picked up on it. We endorsed nine individuals – and six of them were Democrats, three Republicans – and tilted our money toward Madigan, who was expecting because of Bruce Rauner’s leadership … that all our money was going to go to Republicans. That was really an show of – indication to him that we could be a new partner to take the place of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. That was the point. Luckily, it never got covered that way. That wouldn’t have worked well in Illinois – Madigan is not particularly well liked. And it did work.

After the election, Advance Illinois and Stand [for Children] had drafted a very bold proposal called Performance Counts. It tied tenure and layoffs to performance; it let principals hire who they choose; it streamlined dismissal of ineffective tenured teachers substantially – from two-plus years and $200 thousand-plus in legal fees on average to three to four months with very little likelihood of legal recourse. And most importantly, called for the reform of collective bargaining throughout the state, essentially proposing that school boards would be able to decide any disputed issue and impasse – so a very, very bold proposal for Illinois and one that six months earlier would have been unthinkable, undiscussable.

After the election we went back to Madigan, and I confirmed – reviewed the proposal that we had already discussed and I confirmed the support. He said he was supportive. The next day he created an Education Reform Commission and his political director called to ask for our suggestions who should be on it. And so in Aurora, Ill., in December, out of nowhere, there were hearings on our proposal. In addition, we hired 11 lobbyists, including four of the absolute best insiders, and seven of the best minority lobbyists – preventing the unions from hiring them. We enlisted a state public affairs firm. We had tens of thousands of supporters. … We raised $3 million for our political action committee. That’s more money than either of the unions have in their political action committees.

And so essentially what we did in a very short period of time was shift the balance of power. And I can tell you there was a palpable sense of concern, if not shock, on the part of the teachers unions in Illinois that Speaker Madigan had changed allegiance and that we had clear political capability to potentially jam this proposal down their throats the same way pension reform had been jammed down their throats six months earlier. In fact, the pension reform was called Senate Bill 1946, and the unions started talking to each other about “we’re not going to let ourselves be 1946′d again,” using it as a verb.

And so in what’s called lame duck session in January – called lame duck session because some lame ducks are allowed to take a last vote for politically difficult topics – proposals … we made an attempt to do just that, and we weren’t able to move our proposal, and my analysis … was that it went a little too far for Illinois. But as you’ll see in just a second, it was an effective starting point because we started extreme and gave ourselves some room to come back. Sen. Kimberly Lightford [D-Westchester], who’s been a reliable supporter of unions and in the middle of education policymaking, intervened. She has a lot of clout in the Senate … and she forced groups to the table. The unions were thrilled to come to the table and discuss things that, again, nine months earlier they would not have been willing to discuss.

And so over the course of three months, with Advance Illinois taking the negotiating lead … and Advance and Stand working in lockstep – and that unity’s so important, that partnership … they essentially gave away every single provision related to teacher effectiveness that we had proposed.

Everything we fought for in Colorado down to the last half hour in the legislative session, they gave us at the negotiating table [in Illinois]. Not irrationally, not idealistically – it wasn’t a change of heart. It’s because they feared that we were able to potentially execute our collective bargaining proposal … And unions are very logical. They’re concerned most about their dues and their membership, and then next up collective bargaining and pensions are somewhere right around there, and then teacher effectiveness issues, tenure, layoffs, compensation – that’s tertiary for them, so if you show them the capability to actually enact collective bargaining reforms they’re logically going to give on everything short of that to pull back the barricades.

And so this was the strategy led by the IEA. The Illinois Education Association … has a history of pragmatism and they led on this negotiation. They really kind of brought the other unions along. Jo Anderson, the former head of the Illinois Education Association, now works with Arne Duncan in the Department of Education, and his son Josh is the head of Teach for America in Chicago, and the new [IEA] director, Audrey Soglin, is very pragmatic. I doubt this tape will ever get to her, but I would say that I’m interested in talking about whether or not she at the end of the day was happy to get these issues resolved. I don’t think she liked defending a seniority-based system.

So in the intervening time, Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor … and he strongly supports our proposal. Jim [apparently Crown] … talked about the talking point that we made up and he [Emanuel] repeated about a thousand times, probably, on the campaign trail about the Houston kids going to school four years more than the Chicago kids. That was another shoe that dropped, and it really put a lot of pressure on the unions, particularly on the Chicago Teachers Union because they didn’t support it.

So here’s what ends up happening at the end of the day. April 12 we’re down to the last topic of collective bargaining. It’s been saved for last – it’s the hardest topic. We fully expected that our collaborative problem-solving of three months would end and we would have an impasse and go to war, and we were prepared – we had money raised for radio ads and our lobbyists were ready. Well, to our surprise and with Rahm Emanuel’s involvement behind the scenes, we were able to split the IEA from the Chicago Teachers Union.

And in January, just after we hadn’t gotten our proposal through in the lame duck session, I’d worked with a labor lawyer named Jim Franczek who’s absolutely brilliant … and his partner of counsel Stephanie Donovan on fall backs. And Jim and the other supporters had approved fall backs from our initial proposal, essentially isolating Chicago and calling for binding arbitration or or a fact-finding process that wasn’t binding but would have a high threshold for unions to approve. We came with a fall back of binding arbitration when we saw that the IEA was willing to do a deal and just focused on Chicago. They, interestingly, pressured the Chicago Teachers Union to take the deal. Karen Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, who’s a diehard militant, was focused on maintaining her sense of her members’ right to strike. Her sense was that binding arbitration was giving away the right to strike.

But our next proposal – next best, which was a very high threshold for strikes, for whatever reason – tactical miscalculation on her part — was palatable. Rahm pushed it; Kimberly Lightford pushed it; we’d done our homework – we knew that the highest threshold of any bargaining unit that had voted one way or the other on a collective bargaining agreement on a contract vote was 48.3%. The threshold that we were arguing for was three-quarters, so in effect they couldn’t have the ability to strike even though the right was maintained. And so in the endgame, the Chicago Teachers Union took that deal, misunderstanding, probably not knowing the statistics about voting history – and the length of day and year was no longer bargainable in Chicago. And we insisted that we decide all the fine print about the process – she was happy to let us do that.

With the unions then on board, the IEA and the IFT were relieved to have a deal. They came out strongly in support of this agreement, which was this wholesale transformational change, and with that support there was no reason for any politician to oppose it. So the Senate backed it 59-0, and then the Chicago Teachers Union leader started getting pushback from her membership for a deal that really probably wasn’t from their perspective strategic. She backed off for a little while but the die had been cast – she had publicly been supportive – so we did some face-saving technical fixes in a separate bill – but the House approved it 112-1. And a liberal Democratic governor who was elected by public sector unions – that’s not even debatable – in fact signed it and took credit for it. So we talk about a process that ends up achieving transformational change – it’s going to allow the new mayor and the new CEO [of Chicago schools] to lengthen the day and year as much as they want. The unions cannot strike in Chicago. They will never be able to muster the 75% threshold necessary to strike. And the whole framework for discussing impact – you know, what compensation is necessary – is set up through the fine print that we approved to ensure that the fact-finding recommendations, which are nonbinding, will favor what we would consider to be common sense.

… We’re talking about an opportunity now for transformational change across Illinois in that principals will have the power to dismiss ineffective teachers, that they’ll be able to hire who they want, that they’ll no longer be forced to accept teachers they don’t want in their buildings, and that when layoffs happen, they’ll be able to let people go based on performance, not just seniority – and in Chicago they’ll be able to lengthen their day and year which has been just a horrible inequity for decades.

And all this with the narrative of union leadership because it was a fait accompli and the unions decided the smart way that they would pursue a win-win we gave them the space to win. We’ve been happy to dole out plenty of credit and now it makes it hard for folks leading unions in other states to say these types of reforms are terrible because their colleagues in Illinois just said these are great. So our hope and our expectation is to use this as a catalyst to very quickly make similar changes in other very entrenched states.

Transcribed by Caroline Grannan, San Francisco
July 11, 2011

Posted on by CarolineSF Posted in Uncategorized

20 Responses to Jonah Edelman on outfoxing teachers' unions: Transcribed remarks

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  7. me

    what an asshole!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • CarolineSF

      Well, that characterization certainly has occurred to more than a few people.

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