First Person

Voices: Emails expose union voucher opposition

Ben DeGrow of the Independence Institute argues the Douglas County teachers union has been working against vouchers all along. 

Education affairs in Douglas County have attracted a great deal of attention in recent times, often generating more heat than light. A little more clarity is needed, however, to help understand the nature of the opposition to the bold reform agenda in Colorado’s third largest school district.

An audience member fills out a question card about the Douglas County voucher plan.
An audience member fills out a question card on the Douglas County voucher proposal at a 2011 community meeting. EdNews file photo.

As the school board moved ahead with the groundbreaking Choice Scholarship Program in 2011, the Douglas County Federation of Teachers (DCFT) – the local teachers union – carefully crafted a quiet public position. A Jan. 13, 2011, letter to members from President Brenda Smith cautioned a wait-and-see approach as the details of the Choice Scholarship Program were being developed. Two months later, when the board approved the program, EdNews Colorado reported a friendly, neutral tone from the DCFT leader:

“We applaud the district and teachers for working collaboratively … to ensure money will not leave a budget with scarce resources, holds all participating schools accountable and provides an equal opportunity for all our students,” teachers union President Brenda Smith said in a written statement. “We will continue to monitor its implementation.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a local group called Taxpayers for Public Education led the charge to file lawsuits against the Douglas County Board of Education and the State of Colorado, while the local Democratic Party also assumed a role speaking out in opposition. From the union? Silence.

Earlier this month, the AFT co-sponsored an amicus brief in the voucher appeal that stated the union’s clear hostility to rescuing the program and the 500 students it had begun to serve from the district court’s injunction. This filing of course took place in the wake of a public dispute over negotiations that deeply touched the roots of union power and privilege (read this Ed Is Watching blog post).

Emails show union did have an opinion on reforms

Until this week, the apparent satisfying conclusion was that monitoring implementation of the Choice Scholarship Program had meant DCFT was detached and neutral concerning the program’s success or failure. One even might have speculated that union leaders’ seemingly newfound opposition to the pilot choice program stemmed from a reaction to their deteriorating relationship with the board rather than from an earlier calculated effort.

Two newly discovered email messages, one of them publicized Monday in a Townhall column by John Ransom, cast serious doubt on that theory. Even while DCFT leaders served unaccountably on the tax-funded district payroll and the district continued to collect AFT political dollars and other dues funds, the union was scheming with the ACLU to kill the board’s reform agenda.

The first email message was sent from senior political consultant George Merritt to three DCFT leaders, including Smith, on June 21, 2011, the date lawsuits first were filed against the Choice Scholarship Program:

I think it is very likely that we will be asked for a comment. I think this is another scenario where we need to keep our cards close to the vest and let the ACLU do what it does. So far, this is playing out exactly as you all planned, so congrats. While this is welcomed news, I think we want to stay the heck out of the way on this lawsuit. IF we are asked for comment by a reporter, we should keep it short and rather dull.

Merritt’s specific suggestion of something “short and rather dull” reflects the comment Smith provided to EdNews three months earlier. Townhall columnist Ransom makes a compelling observation when he writes:

It appears from the email that the union was coached by Merritt to execute a strategy that kept the union out of the limelight, while union officials on the public dole stage-managed efforts at destroying reform measures….

In other words, when it comes to the Choice Scholarship Program, DCFT was actually against it before they were against it. The second email shows a series of reactions to news that a local university was performing a privately-funded survey of parents who had received a Choice Scholarship (reported a few days later in the Denver Post).

Messages were exchanged on the evening of Dec. 7, 2011, nearly four months after Judge Michael A. Martinez issued the injunction. Responding to DCFT Vice President Courtney Smith, who exclaimed in language your teenager will understand (“OMG!!!!!”), Merritt concisely advised:

Let’s work on it first thing tomorrow. We’ll get it to the ACLU and let them raise hell.

Coordinated efforts? You make the call.

Like two important pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, these email messages provide a clearer picture of the timing and nature of the union’s opposition to school choice reforms. Given this new information, it’s fair to ask whether Gov. Hickenlooper finds the case more compelling to make a risky intervention on a major campaign contributor’s behalf. (Read about a $10,000 contribution to Hickenlooper from the DCFT at Colorado Peak Politics.)

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.