GORE VIDAL SAID “the four best words in the English language are ‘I told you so.’”
Forecasting reckless leadership during a recession does not qualify for that distinction. But as our civic conversation consumes opinions in a time of crisis, it is important to reflect on who to trust.
And who not to trust.
Last year, during the boom economy of March 2019, Massachusetts Teachers Association president Merry Najimy called on state leaders to spend down the state’s rainy day fund. That fund protects discretionary items like education funding during economic downturns, as I wrote at the time in CommonWealth, but such real-world consequences are of little interest to ideological politicians like Najimy who have recently taken over several teacher unions.
Now, as the state faces a potential $6 billion shortfall, it is jarring to recall such irresponsibility from an elected leader. While not a public official exactly, the presidency of the state’s largest teachers union is an elected (by members) political position. Historically, teacher union presidents have been an important source of information and opinion as our society moves forward on important issues.
Fast forward to March 2020 and the health, social, and economic crises of coronavirus. Leaders around the state grappled with issues of life or death, and of the various unhealthy consequences of a million children leaving school. Makeshift hospitals were erected. Food distribution systems altered. Childcare and child safety provisions put in place.
Amid all this, what was the leader of the state’s largest teachers union doing? Focusing on permanently canceling the MCAS, with hashtags like #ShutThisShitDown and promising to “Shut it down, now and forever.”
As Massachusetts grapples with the next phase of this crisis, the MTA has released a set of demands on school reopening. We must remember how much worse our current problems would be had we followed their advice a year ago, and discount what we hear from the current MTA leadership and their narrow-interest posturing.
It is naturally difficult for the media and politicians not to take a teachers union president as a credible source. After all, teachers are highly trusted and the topics they focus on are incredibly important. But as Tea Party-like factions have leveraged our polarized political climate and new organizing methods to win key posts, their irresponsibility has started becoming more and more apparent.
Najimy and a few of her peers focus almost exclusively on two things: more state money, and no testing. This is understandable, and sometimes laudable — as in the case of additional, progressively allocated funding. As Americans are increasingly recognizing, though, public sector unions are highly focused on increasing benefits and reducing transparent, public measures of performance. And quite adept at making excuses for not delivering quality services. We can’t lose sight of that reality in assessing the MTA’s role.
To maintain credibility, union presidents and their PR machines have to balance that focus. While Najimy and her ideologically rigid peers have tremendous message discipline, they refuse any sense of balance. And key civic conversation makers are increasingly noticing.
Last Sunday’s Boston Globe editorial blared “The Massachusetts Teachers Association tries to exploit a crisis.” As the state was building tent hospitals to prepare for overwhelming suffering and death, and students across the state were flung out of school and into disrupted home lives, the MTA was laser focused on … stopping the MCAS in 2021, 2022, and 2023. That exploitation was called out.
Last Wednesday, a Globe story on the state’s school reopening guidelines featured a jeremiad from the president of the Boston local of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) about teachers being included in the commission. The next line of the story read like a CNN chyron correcting an outlandish Trump lie: Teachers were included on the commission (including the AFT president).
Last year, Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo blasted the MTA’s “juvenile tactics” during a day in which Najimy apparently thought it was Senior Skip Day in high school or a prank day in middle school — she refused a meeting with legislative leaders then posted pictures to social media in a costume intended to mock leaders.
Sometimes it is hard not to just take them at their word. A recent story on teacher layoffs featured the MTA blaming the state for underfunding cities like … wait for it … Newton, which boasts an average home price over $1 million and median incomes of $140,000. If “the state” is to blame for Newton’s finances, then where is the money coming from for the 95 percent of the state that is less wealthy?
Whenever press or politicians receive a press release or pitch from the current Tea Party-type leadership of teacher unions, it would be helpful to chant a little mantra: “State money, no tests. State money, no tests. State money, no tests.” The news could be about practically anything — remote learning plans, Newton politics — but the message discipline will be there.
The upshot is that the MTA will always push an agenda based on its own short-term interests. That’s how its controlling faction won union elections, and that is how they would govern if given the chance. And for all their hyperbole of “austerity” budgets, their instinct to raid the rainy day fund a year ago would have led to real austerity now.
Teachers of course need a place at the table in crafting education policy, but the MTA is not interested in serious problem-solving to suit this moment. Every problem boils down to simply “state money, no tests.” Taking that message at face value is even more dangerous now than it was a year ago.
Liam Kerr is director of the Massachusetts state chapter of Democrats for Education Reform.