Sharpton, Education Plan May Tear Union Ties

Press Releases

June 12, 2008

(From USA TODAY, June 11, 2008)


Decades-long ties between civil rights groups and teachers unions could be split by a new effort, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, to close the nagging achievement gap between white and minority students.

Sharpton, a Baptist pastor and political gadfly, says that for years, civil rights leaders have been silent on education equity issues. But a new group of activists, school superintendents and academics will push education in the 2008 presidential election, he said.

Unions have blocked what many reformers say are innovative ideas, such as alternative pay grades for teachers, expanded charter schools and moving excellent teachers into needy schools.

"There have been a lot of old alliances being protected, and the children are not being protected," he said. "And if we're going to move forward, we're going to have to be able to have new alliances here — that might mean some old relationships with teachers unions, principals unions and all are going to be a little troubled. But we cannot say that we're going to close this achievement gap but protect ineffective teachers or principals or school chiefs or not challenge parents."

He noted that in cities such as Detroit, only one in three black males earns a high school diploma.

"They end up fast-tracked to jail and we (who) claim to be dealing with the issues of racial disparities on a daily basis never mention this, and never talk about this because in many ways some of our friends don't want to be part of what may have to adjust."

The effort grew out of conversations around the 40th anniversary last April of the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Neither Sharpton nor Klein offered details on the Education Equality Project, but said they sent letters to both presidential candidates Wednesday and plan to stage events at both political conventions.

Joe Williams, executive director of the nonprofit group Democrats for Education Reform, said Sharpton's involvement has the potential to give a higher profile to issues of equality in education. "It just changes the overall nature of the debate for everybody involved. It's a different discussion today than it was yesterday."

Klein, who has presided over an overhaul of the USA's largest school district, says the nation has "made basically no progress" on the achivement gap in the past 50 years. "Whatever numbers you look at, you'll see a racial and ethnic achievement gap that takes your breath away."

Randi Weingarten, who heads New York City's teachers union and has worked closely with Klein for years, responded to the news with dismay, saying the "top-down" group has no teachers or principals.

"Too often what happens is that when people get into this, they blame all the people who have been toiling in this field without the resources and without the public focus on it," she said. "It's like saying that those of us who have been frontierspeople in this fight for equity for the last 50 years are the ones who should be faulted, as opposed to saying, 'We'll join you ready for duty — what can we do to help?' "

Education historian Richard Kahlenberg said that while unions' and civil rights groups' interests "are usually aligned," this isn't the first time they've clashed. "It's been an uneasy alliance over the years."

Kahlenberg, the author of a recent biography on legendary American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker, said a deep rift between the groups "would be disastrous — these are two groups that are essential to the fight for equal opportunity in society, and more narrowly … both groups have an interest in making sure schools are properly funded. So to declare war on the teacher unions, I think, would be a huge mistake."