What Does TFA Tell The New Recruits About The Janus Decision?

First year teachers have a lot of decisions to make.  They need to decide how to set up their classrooms, what rules to make, how strict to be.  This year about 4,000 of these first year teachers are being trained at institutes across the country by Teach For America.  And in those trainings they will, in theory at least, provide information to help the first year teachers make an informed decision about many of these choices.

This year, there is a new decision that many of those TFA recruits will have to face:  Whether or not to opt-in to the union.  Since the Supreme Court Janus decision was handed down a few weeks ago, not only are teachers not required to pay union dues but they must actively opt-in or they will, by default, not be contributing to the union.

Teach For America has been in conflict with teachers unions on a lot of fronts.  Since many TFA teachers are at non-unionized charter schools, TFA, the organization, is seen by some as ‘union busters’ so TFA is not, in general, liked by the union.  But when you separate TFA, the organization, from TFA, the actual teachers, many TFA teachers are union members and even some union leaders who value what the union does for the teaching profession and, indirectly, for the students of the teachers it represents.  So the union is somewhat anti-TFA.  In the other direction, TFA is, on average, anti-union.  Over the years TFA has propped up various anti-union alumni like Michelle Rhee, Marc Sternberg (of the Walton Foundation), Cami Anderson (former superintendent of Newark schools), and Peter Cook (describes himself as “A former teacher union member who is deeply disappointed in the teachers unions behavior”) as well as anti-union friends of Teach For America like Joel Klein (former chancellor of New York City), Chris Stewart (describes himself as “Black parent, activist, and system critic”), and even former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

Wendy Kopp, founder of TFA, in her book ‘A Chance To Make History’ (2011), has a chapter entitled ‘Silver Bullets and Silver Scapegoats’ with a subsection with the very slippery title ‘Teachers’ Unions Aren’t the Primary Problem, Either’ Wendy lays out all the anti-union arguments, but does try to balance them with pro-union arguments.  The section still emphasizes the problems with the union and oversimplifies the arguments.

Here is an excerpt from page 138:

Some unions resist collecting and tracking student achievement results in a way that could reveal which teachers are consistently leading students to academic progress and which teachers are not.  In some cases unions have resisted the idea that teacher performance should play a role in layoff decisions, forcing children and families to lose some of their most effective teachers (who happen to have the least seniority).  Of course, the union’s perspective is that these policies have their roots in historical experience that showed school district administrations weren’t capable of operating in humane and thoughtful ways — a perspective that is grounded in some truth– though it is difficult to see how these positions have the best interest of kids and educational quality in mind.

Wendy celebrates that the union in DC agreed to Michelle Rhee’s IMPACT evaluation and that one of the Colorado unions supported Michael Johnston’s SB-191 bill that made standardized test ‘growth’ numbers 50% of teacher evaluation.  This was back in 2010 when these seemed, to reformers, like something that might work.  Eight years later IMPACT has reduced that percent to 35% and a key creator of it, TFA alum Jason Kamras has left D.C. to become superintendent of Richmond where he said he will not try to implement IMPACT there.  In Colorado, student achievement has not moved at all due to SB-191 and that policy is considered a huge failure which was one of the things that sunk Michael Johnston’s gubernatorial bid.

Still, Wendy’s book does at least try to give the pros and cons of the union.  So it would not be unreasonable to expect that while TFA trains 4,000 new teachers this summer, they would spend at least a bit of time discussing the issue and maybe offering advice to the new teachers on what they might think about as they decide whether or not to opt-in to the union.

So I contacted TFA to ask them how they are handling this issue and they told me that they have decided to not bring it up at all.  They explained that TFA does not have just one opinion they are a group with diverse views so they are going to stay out of this one.  Basically, the ‘fine people on both sides’ excuse.

I suggested that maybe they would be willing to publish a ‘point/counterpoint’ on their blog where I could argue one side and get one of the anti-union people to argue the other, but they said that wasn’t something they were interested in doing.  So I reached out to an anti-union TFA alum and asked if he was willing to write an argument for why new TFA teachers should not opt-in and he declined.

When the Janus decision came out, there were several types of responses to it.  On the reform critic side, there was universal outrage.  But on the reform side, I saw three different responses:

First, there were reformers who openly celebrated the decision.  This even includes a teacher who is overjoyed about this.  There aren’t weren’t very many of these.

Then there were reformers who actually acted conflicted by the decision.  This included one of the most anti-union reformers of them all, Peter Cunningham.  This post actually started with “I embraced education reform to strengthen schools, not to weaken unions, so I am not especially happy about the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus vs. AFSCME.”  In the hugely anti-union The74 website, Chris Cerf wrote another such conflicted piece.  And the anti-union Educators For Excellence also did this.

Finally, the largest group of all, the anti-union reformers who chose to be silent on the issue.  This includes Michelle Rhee, who didn’t even tweet a peep about this.  We also didn’t hear much from the TFA alumni and friends from 50CAN who constantly troll me on Twitter.

It would be odd for TFA to publish something jubilant about Janus, so I’m not surprised about that.  But I would think they would offer something like the conflicted reformers.  Instead, though, they chose to go the cowardly Michelle Rhee route — they could not even bring themselves to show a little remorse about the decision they helped create by propping up their anti-union allies at every opportunity and silencing their pro-union alums.

So, if there are any TFA trainees out there reading this, or if you know any of them, here’s what I would tell them about whether or not to opt-in to the union:

In the long run, the weaker the union is, the less attractive teaching will be for potential new teachers.  This will ultimately hurt students since there will not be as many qualified teachers.

Even though you are not thinking beyond two years right now, maybe you will, like me, decide to become a career teacher.  The union is vital for things like pension benefits and retirement.

It’s the right thing to do since you ‘owe’ them already.  Yes, you can save $1000 a year by not joining the union, but before you do that remember that if it were not for union activity in the past, your salary would likely be much more than $1000 less.  In that sense, you ‘owe’ that money to the union for services they did way before.

The Janus case was brought up by rich conservative backers and decided by a conservative majority Supreme Court.  The union member whose name is on the case, Mark Janus, quit his union job soon after this decision to work for the think-tank that funded the case.  This case was about weakening the working class while benefitting the rich.  By falling for the ‘it’s for the kids’ lie, you are getting tricked into supporting something that does not accomplish this at all.

The majority of the other teachers at your school will be opting-in to the union.  If you don’t do it, you are not acting as part of the team.  This could alienate you and other teachers may not go out of their way to help you when you have questions.  In that way, not joining the union will indirectly hurt your students since you will not have as much access to help from experienced teachers.

A popular argument against unions is that they offer legal protection to teachers accused of various things.  As a new teacher without tenure you are actually very vulnerable to not just false accusations but also to accusations that you crossed the line, for example, when you yelled at a student or something like that.  You might face a dilemma like a student who has no way to get home after school.  A lot of new teachers would think that it is a good idea to drive that student home (I’d advise against it, but I could see this as a dilemma that a new teacher might face).  What if on the way home you get into a small accident?  I’m not sure how every union is going to deal with those who don’t opt-in, but having the opportunity for legal representation is good insurance in case you do get accused of something.

Donald Trump is happy about the Janus case, and anything that makes Trump happy must be something that is bad for the country.

If commenters want to add to this list, please feel free to do so.


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11 Responses to What Does TFA Tell The New Recruits About The Janus Decision?

  1. Jack says:


    Remember Rhee’s FALL 2013 “Teachers unions are evil” publicity speaking tour? You even did an analysis of the video of the Los Angeles tour event. (which is still available on YouTube.) She and/or the organizers abruptly cancelled the tour after only 3 events — L.A., Philly, and I forget the last one (somewhere in the south.) — as each of these events backfired on her, making her and the anti-union movement look bad. The L.A. event ended up briefly making a YouTube star out of a petite USC student and future teacher Hannah Nguyen, who told Rhee off near the end.

    These events were to unions and unionized teachers what Nazi rallies were/are to Jews, or KKK rallies were/are to blacks. At one point, the moderator, in a planned moment, said, “And now let’s hear from a teacher” (a plant in the audience), and this female teacher then got up and said, “Teachers unions are so evil. We need to wipe them out. Ms. Rhee, what can we teachers do to make that happen?” (not an exact quote … from memory)

    This was Theater of the Absurd, brought to you by Michelle Rhee and Students First.

    For Rhee to now duck any questions about Janus is extremely disingenuous.

    Oh, and here’s that video — called the “Students First Teacher Town Hall”:
    (go to 134:43 to watch Hannah demolish Rhee … Hannah was/is 95 pounds of dynamite)

    What’s funny about this is what you don’t see going on just before Hannah spoke. She held up a handmade (cardboard and magic marker) sign that, said,

    “If it’s Students First, why are no students speaking?”

    A security guard ran down and violently riipped it away from her, causing the audience to gasp audibly. This got sympathy from former Washington, D.C. teachers union leader (and traitor / well-paid Students First exec … long story) George Parker, who then said, “Oh let her speak.” Hannah looked very demure and unimposing to him, so it was kind of like letting a young sibling read a poem at Thanksgiving Dinner, so Parker thought patronizingly, “Oh let her speak. It’ll be a way to end the even on a positive, inspiring note.” After much persuasion from Parker, the moderator allowed Hannah to have her say.

    Big Mistake — from the point of view of Rhee and her organizers. Her speech blew up and went viral (though sadly, the clip was later taken down by whoever posted it … but not before getting over 1,000,000 views on YouTube). Hannah got all the press, not Rhee, who was left flailing in her attempts to rebut Hannah.

    Again, go watch it at 134:43:

    • Jack says:

      I’m a glutton for punishment, so I had to go find the part where Rhee’s choreographed plant / purported spokesperson for teachers got up and called for the “teachers unions” to be “eradicated.” (This is like in the old West, during a snake oil pitch, they’d have one plant in the audience to act out a pre-planned script.)

      Here it is: (at about 37:10)

      TEACHER PLANT & ANTI-UNION SHILL: “I am not a supporter of unions at all. I really feel that …
      (to RHEE)
      “What can you forsee if the teachers unions were eradicated, and tenure was eradicated, how many more … because I saw WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, and I just am in total awe of you, Ms. Rhee … I really feel like … if we got rid of tenure … I know this is not popular … and we got rid of that, that pull … that children would have so much, so many better opportunities in the classroom. What do you see. I feel that we’re in this century, it needs to go. Tenure needs to go! The unions, I feel, are antequated in the profession of teacher I don’t check in with a card. … ”

      That’s enough. I can’t transcribe any more of this incoherent and patent nonsense. I sure hope this dolt doesn’t teach kids English.

      You see, at Michelle Rhee Teacher Town Hall, this hare-brained shill represents the “voice of teachers.”

  2. E. Rat says:

    I doubt TFA will stay silent on this. I base this on the long and detailed explanation given to Bay Area 2001 Corps Members on how to opt out of paying dues beyond required agency fees and why we might want to do that. I come from a union household and was not impressed, and when I commented in favor of paying all fees and joining the union I was reminded that TFA is not a political organization. Telling people how (and why) to pay only agency fees was neutral in their view, because California was “forcing” us to join the union.

    While nothing may be discussed nationally, I have to assume the kind of anti-union “neutrality” has been happening and will continue to happen in regional groups. And California teachers should absolutely belong to their unions for all the reasons above and because our locals can (and do!) negotiate for not just salary and benefits, but everything that impacts teaching and learning. My local has held the line on class size increases, made sure that classrooms have phones and safe drinking water, and pushed back on excessive testing (and made sure teachers get release time to complete one on one and small group assessment).

  3. MathAppeal says:

    The chapter chair at a high school where I used to work approached new teachers one year to invite them to join the union. Those who were TFA claimed that their contract prohibited them from joining the union.

  4. Pingback: Gary Rubinstein: How TFA and Other Reformers Reacted to the Janus Decision–and Why TFA Recruits Should Join the Union | Diane Ravitch's blog

  5. It’s important to remember that this “legal representation” that people object to isn’t just a blanket allowance of a free lawyer. It’s specifically to support the contract. A contract that was agreed upon by both the union AND management (city, district, state, whomever).

    So, if you’re a teacher and management treats you in such a way that violates the contract, you have the legal support that you both need and are entitled to.

  6. Linda says:

    Thanks for the summary, Gary. The VP of education policy at the corporate-funded Center for American Progress is former TFA. If Hillary had won i.e. if she had had competent campaign managers, would the Janus decision have gone the other way?

    “Accountability” at CAP’s top levels, resulted in no change in leadership, after its campaign efforts for Hillary met spectacular failure. Michael Moore widely published the blueprint to avoid Democratic defeat. So, which is true, CAP can’t find its way out of a bag or the more Machiavellian answer?

    If I was CAP and I thought Hillary was robbed by the Russians, I would protect my reputation by working to prove the statistical significance for votes in key states, where Russian activity was targeted. Does CAP have any findings to report that delegitimize Trump’s presidency? Uh….., no?

    it’s not surprising that establishment Dems prefer to cite the progressives in the party as the reason for Hillary’s loss. Corporations don’t like progressives. How does CAP explain the 1000 seats Dems lost, prior to the recent progressive activism?

  7. Anonymous says:

    I work for TFA in a major city and when I brought up Janus (back before it was decided) in a meeting with regional leaders regarding what it would mean for our incoming CM and how we would handle it, no one in the room (of high level leadership) knew what I was talking about. Then they brushed it aside and kept on moving with the meeting. From my perspective on the inside, TFA has this idea that staying out of these debates will render them more politically neutral, which is good decision insofar as optics are concerned. Of course, they are not politically neutral at all, but this is the “rationale” of leadership.

  8. Michael Fiorillo says:

    Incoming teachers, whether TFA or not, should join the union for all the reasons Gary points out, but also because of the statement you’re making to your colleagues if you don’t: that you’re willing to selfishly benefit from the collective actions of teachers past and present, but not willing to do the minimum of paying your share of it.

    In other words, that you’re a deadbeat and a leech.

  9. Pingback: Links 8/4/18 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  10. Pingback: An Open Letter to Teach for America Regarding Teacher Strikes | Here comes trouble

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