- Time for a New Strategy
For those on the front lines of the fight to defend and improve public education, the 2016 presidential election is already a minefield. On July 11, 2015, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten announced that the roughly one-million-member organization would officially throw its weight behind Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for president of the United States. The million members had zero opportunity to discuss or vote on the matter. This was not surprising in the least, given the union’s historic allegiance to the strategy of backing whichever Democrat is most likely to win, regardless of what he or she is likely to do in office.
We’re living through an unprecedented attack on the public schools, on the teaching profession, and on unionized teachers in particular. The AFT could use its collective strength to alter the political landscape. At the very least, it could open up a political discussion in every local about the candidates and their positions. At best, it could do the unthinkable and dare to throw its weight behind “unelectable” candidates who actually support public education and teachers’ unions.
New York politics might offer some lessons for the presidential race. Here, Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo has been a fierce advocate of what many call “corporate education reform”; the governor stoked statewide anger by starving public schools of funding while aggressively promoting charter schools. But when Cuomo faced a progressive challenge from Zephyr Teachout in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in fall 2014, Weingarten lent her voice to a robocall to voters, encouraging support for Cuomo’s rightist running mate, Kathy Hochul (the union didn’t dare openly endorse Cuomo himself). To the union’s most engaged and active members, those who had organized countless forums, town halls, pickets, and protests to save our schools, this was widely perceived as something of a kick in the teeth. Fortunately, after the primary, many of them backed Howie Hawkins’s Green Party bid (I was the candidate for lieutenant governor), which pushed the campaign to a historic 5 percent of the overall vote.
Needless to say, Cuomo and Hochul won the primary and the election. When the dust settled, Cuomo admitted that one of his goals for the next four years was “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies”—public schools. So-called “lesser-evil” voting gives the Democrats a free pass. As long as they don’t have an “R” next to their name, there is literally nothing they can do to lose the union’s official support.
Tragically, the Clinton endorsement is a repeat of this approach on the national stage. Clinton is funded by the same banksters who are sinking their fangs into public education coffers. The privatization of public education—through charter schools, standardized testing, and union busting—is not a right-wing Republican conspiracy. It is being carried out by liberals in the Democratic Party. Clinton is a former board member of Walmart, a company owned by a family—the Waltons—deeply invested in privatizing public schools. Hillary Clinton does not represent a genuine alternative, or even necessarily a “lesser” evil.
Meanwhile, the candidate tapping into the desire for change is Bernie Sanders. Sadly, Sanders has already vowed to back whichever Democratic candidate wins the primary, at which point his supporters can either hold their noses and vote for the establishment candidate, likely to be Clinton, or support a principled candidate like the Green Party’s Jill Stein. The Democratic Party is smart to use Sanders in this way. Without him, angry voters in their historic base would have good reason to sit this one out or seek out a new party. For those of us who are trying to build that new party, 2016 is going to be a difficult year. But real change is never easy, and in the long run “winners” often turn out to be losers. The AFT leadership has given Democrats a license to keep taking teachers for granted. In order to change that we need to start supporting candidates who actually support us. That’s why I’ll be voting...