Monday, July 28, 2014

Francesca Gomes: Austerity Contract for NYC Teachers

Francesca Gomes teaches at a Brooklyn middle school. She will be a member of the new MORE steering committee beginning a 6-month term on August 1. She is a member of Socialist Alternative, which has run candidates in some municipal elections, most notably in Seattle where they elected an SA member to the City Council who spearheaded the highest minimum wage law in the nation.


Austerity Contract for NYC Teachers – More Attacks, More Need for Unified Fightback

Published On July 17, 2014 | By Francesca Gomes | Workers' Movement
by Francesca Gomes, New York City teacher

For the past dozen years, the American elite has pursued a relentless agenda of “education reform,” which has aimed to privatize large sections of the education system and drastically weaken the strength of the teacher unions. The recent negotiations for a new contract for 110,000 education workers in the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City was an important opportunity to push back against these relentless attacks. But unfortunately this opportunity was missed when the leadership of the union came back from negotiations with a 9 year austerity contract, which a demoralized membership largely accepted. This setback has real negative consequences for the teachers’ unions nationally and for other municipal unions in New York City.

De Blasio’s “Tale of Two Cities” Rhetoric

New York City’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio ran under the banner of addressing inequality as he described New York as a “tale of two cities,” rife with inequalities in housing, early childhood education and police tactics” (“De Blasio Asks City to Address Its Inequalities,” By Michael Barbaro. New York Times 5 Aug 2013). Furthermore, he sold himself as a friend to the unions. Almost the entire municipal workforce of 350,000 were working under expired contracts while de Blasio’s predecessor Bloomberg, a notorious anti-union mayor, was in office.
Photo: Christie M Farriella / New York Daily News
Photo: Christie M Farriella / New York Daily News
De Blasio also promised a serious change in education policy from that of Bloomberg, who had been one of the top education “deformers” in the U.S. Bloomberg pretended he cared about the fate of working class and poor children. But the net result of his policies, as described succinctly in a recent New York Times headline, is that “Public Schools in New York City Are Poorer and More Crowded” (2 July 2014). In order to contrast himself with this image, De Blasio quickly appointed Carmen Fariña, a former teacher, principal, and district superintendent, as the Chancellor of the Department of Education (DoE). This looked to teachers, like a hopeful development, as Fariña promised to fight alongside de Blasio against high-stakes testing for universal pre-K, funded by taxing the wealthy, and for more arts programs in city public schools. De Blasio and Fariña said they were also against charter co-locations, and school closings.
However, a month after de Blasio’s inauguration, he “approved 36 charter schools to share space with other schools” (“Bill de Blasio Is Actually More Helpful To Charter Schools Than Some Republicans, Report Says” [The Huffington Post 7 Apr 2014]). Carmen Fariña, not surprisingly, did not utter a word of protest.

The Legacy of UFT President Michael Mulgrew

Like de Blasio, UFT President Michael Mulgrew and the UFT leadership’s dominant Unity Caucus has a poor history of fighting against the privatization represented by charter schools and the use of standardized testing in New York City. The UFT leadership has yet to attempt a mobilization of the membership against charter schools’ use of public school buildings, which usually results in the original public school becoming squeezed for resources and makes them more likely to do poorly on standardized tests.
And last year, the UFT leadership agreed to a deal with the DoE that uses standardized test score as 20% – 40% of a teacher’s annual evaluation – with the added caveat that if these test scores are deemed low enough to rate a teacher as “ineffective,” this trumps all other parts of the evaluation and the teacher automatically receives an “ineffective” rating – illogically proclaiming that this meant the new system took more power away from the subjective assessments of principals and was therefore a victory.

The Proud Sale of an Austerity Contract

From left: Mayor Bill de Blasio, UFT President Michael Mulgrew, NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña (Photo: Rob Bennett / Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)
From left: Mayor Bill de Blasio, UFT President Michael Mulgrew, NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña (Photo: Rob Bennett / Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)
As the UFT had gone longest out of all the key municipal labor unions in the city without a contract (the last expired in October of 2009), it was the first to engage in negotiations with the new mayor. On May 1st, the UFT leadership brought de Blasio’s first contract proposal to its membership. UFT President Michael Mulgrew crowed that the education issues were the time-consuming parts of the negotiations, but that the raises had been offered immediately, as soon as the mayor realized the UFT was “willing to be reasonable.”
The raises were deceptively described as “generous,” at 18%. However, there were quite a few issues. One was that the contract is 9-years long, which means that the raises will average 2% a year. This number does not even keep up with the headline rate of inflation, which is significantly less than the actual rise in the cost of living experienced by most working people in New York. In addition, whereas back pay is normally given in a lump sum upon contract ratification, Mulgrew and de Blasio insisted that this would bankrupt the city, as the money was not available in the labor reserve. No mention was made of the vast amounts of money spent on data analysis, payments to the Pearson test making company, and corporate consultants, all of which could be diverted into teacher salaries. The “no money” argument was used to support the back pay and raises owed for prior years being spread out over the course of 7 ½ years.
At a deeper level, the whole argument used to justify the lack of real wage increases (i.e. raises above the rate of inflation) which will now be used to justify similar deals with other city unions, rests on a giant lie. Tens of billions of dollars flowed into the coffers of Wall Street banks in the depths of the financial crisis while city services including education were cut to the bone. The number of teachers was allowed to shrink by several thousand even though there were no fewer children in the school system, leading to ever more crowded classrooms. Now, if finance and real estate profits are anything to go by, the city is experiencing a mini-boom. Even a minimal transaction tax on sales of stocks and shares in the city would be sufficient to reverse all the cuts to education and pay for real wage increases for all city workers.
The contract also includes several other measures eroding teacher rights. Teachers displaced from “failing” schools closed by the DoE , or ATRs, continue to be rotated, staying at each school for one week, but they are now subject to proceedings to strip them of their licenses and be terminated if two principals report that their behavior is in any way “problematic.” They will then undergo a one-day termination hearing. With the increase in support for charter schools, approved by the UFT leadership, more and more teachers will be displaced and subject to this dangerous, tenure-attacking system.
The UFT even agreed to include moves towards further privatization of schools, lauding a clause that creates 200 new “PROSE” schools, in which most union rules can be suspended, including those regarding the length of the school day and year. The teachers in these schools will be largely outside union jurisdiction, and there is a very real danger that if the students in these schools get higher standardized test scores, the proposal for the next contract will insist that things like tenure, a reasonable work day, and summer vacations are holding the city’s children back and should be eliminated.
In addition, a thinly disguised form of merit pay was introduced, allowing for up to $20,000 to be added to the salaries of teachers who take new “career ladder” positions, one of which is acting as a “peer validator,” a position that asks them to evaluate teachers rated “ineffective” by their principals. This will be even more divisive than other proposed merit pay schemes.
What is even more important is what was missing from the contract. Class size was not lowered, and instead of moving towards a reduction in standardized testing, the contract expressly confirms the use of standardized test results as 20% – 40% of a teacher’s rating, an astoundingly hypocritical proposal from a mayor, chancellor, and union president who passionately insist they are against so much standardized testing in schools. For all his talk of inequality, de Blasio presented teachers with a contract that measured them based on test results that are largely tied to levels of poverty in the neighborhoods they serve, effectively denying the fact that inequality in the distribution of New York City’s money and resources has any effect on the educational opportunities of our most vulnerable children.
In reality, a huge opportunity was missed to begin a push back against education reform in the biggest city in the U.S. Key to this agenda is “high stakes” testing, which has been used as a battering ram to close schools, open charter schools and tie teacher pay and evaluations to allegedly objective “performance”. Education reform backed by billionaires like Bill Gates and the Waltons (owners of Walmart) has strong support from both Democrats and Republicans.
Union leaders like Mulgrew said it would not be right to put too much pressure on “friends” like de Blasio. But the absolute opposite was true. For many reasons, de Blasio wanted to make a popular deal. If the membership had been mobilized to push for real measures to move away from high stakes testing as well as real wage increases, this could have resonated with the public and other city workers and forced de Blasio’s hand.

The Opt-Out Movement

IMG_1203-editSince the union leadership has utterly failed to take the lead in fighting high stakes testing, it has been left to a grassroots movement, led by parents and rank and file teachers, with the support of some school principals, to take action. Referred to as the “Opt-Out Movement,” it involves parents instructing their children to decline to take the test while sending them to school with a letter stating their refusal to allow their children to be subjected to three days of 90-minute tests in English and Math. Alternatively, some school staffs and principals have decided to refuse to administer the tests due to widespread opposition from parents. It is criminal that the union leadership has refused to come out and support this movement which could develop in the coming years into a serious challenge to education reform.

A Lack of Unity

IMG_1098-editWhile many teachers were able to see the contract for what it was, the only organized protest against it was mounted by the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE). Though the effort made by this group was truly commendable, it currently has too small of a base to mount an effective attack or empower the teachers in a city with such a vast, sprawling geography and such a high number of schools. In most schools, only the rose-colored version of the contract promoted by the leadership and its Unity Caucus (which included outright lies) was heard. If all UFT members had properly heard both sides of the argument, the vote would have been much closer.
From the use of fear tactics by the current UFT leadership to its acceptance of charter schools and standardized testing, it has shown that it is entirely incapable of and has no intention of even attempting to stage a fightback against the erosion of teachers’ rights. Its “strategy” at the moment appears to boil down to the mantra “we must trust our friends”, de Blasio and Fariña. This led inevitably to the need to present the austerity contract as a victory.
It must also be said that part of the context for the 77% vote in favor of the contract was the extremely low expectations of a deeply demoralized membership, which also had little faith in the leadership to get something better if it was sent back to the bargaining table. An article on the MORE website entitled “Disappointment” states that: “Most of the members with whom we spoke who approved this contract only did so because they felt it was the best our union could do,” and this was a direct effect of the union leadership’s campaign to scare teachers into accepting the deal, insisting that “the money [would] go away” if it were not ratified.
Rebuilding the fighting confidence of the union rank and file is not a straightforward process. The recent winning of a $15 minimum wage in Seattle shows working people can win real victories when they mobilize at a grassroots level. Union members, however, are contending with a leadership that actively works to reinforce their fear and demoralization, while presenting themselves as the strength of the union, instead of mobilizing their membership to exercise its own strength.

Further Dangers for All NYC Workers

This contract does not only affect the New York City’s teachers. Due to the de facto system of pattern bargaining, which is what made the 4% raises for the first two years of the retroactive contract (as that is what other municipal labor unions were given), there will be the expectation that all other municipal labor unions negotiating a retroactive contract will be offered the same raises as the UFT (0% for 2011-12, then for each of the next school years: 0%, 1%, 1%, 1%, 1%) as part of pattern bargaining. It remains to be seen if other unions, like that of the NYPD, FDNY, and Department of Sanitation will accept this kind of austerity measure. Regardless, the ratification of this contract is disastrous for the system of pattern bargaining, which has been the one way in which New York City unions have shown a measure of solidarity with each other, threatening to turn worker against worker at the very time we should be unifying to form a true fightback. Already, New York City’s Health and Hospitals Corporation members of Chapter 1199 of the SEIU have been offered a contract with the same delayed implementation of raises, 1% raises for each of several years covered by the contract, and the threat of paying into healthcare down the road ( 25 June 2014).
The leaderships of municipal labor unions, not only in New York, but around the entire United States, put all of their faith in the Democratic Party, even after these politicians establish a pattern of consistently breaking promises and forcing austerity measures onto the working class of our cities, insisting that we need to “be realistic.” Because the memberships of these unions are constantly being told how much worse our situation could be, it is very difficult for most of us to envision how much better it could be if public sector workers showed real solidarity with each other at all times, realized our strength as the people who make cities run, and demanded real wage increases and the restoration of the massive cuts to social services that were designed to make working people pay for the crisis of capitalism. We must also start running our own working-class, independent political candidates for office if the municipal labor unions of New York City and the entire U.S. if we are to have a chance of pushing back against anti-worker, anti-union policies.
While the new teachers’ contract in New York City is a real setback, it is not the end of the struggle to defend public education or public sector trade unionism. Teachers, parents and students must unite to demand an end to high stakes testing and a massive investment in education to radically reduce class size. Further provocations from corporate America and its political minions like the new wave of lawsuits aimed at eliminating teacher tenure will inevitably provoke resistance. Furthermore, the struggles of other workers, including fast food workers and the fight for a $15 minimum wage, can lift the sights of demoralized sections of the unionized workforce and show them that the road of struggle and a split from the Democratic Party in favor of running workers’ candidates are the only ways to defend past gains and secure real gains in the future. Without this the very existence of public sector unionism in the form in which it has existed will be in jeopardy.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Forbes: Charter School Gravy Train Runs Express To Fat City

Charter School Gravy Train Runs Express To Fat City

On Thursday, July 25, dozens of bankers, hedge fund types and private equity investors gathered in New York to hear about the latest and greatest opportunities to collect a cut of your property taxes. Of course, the promotional material for the Capital Roundtable’s conference on “private equity investing in for-profit education companies” didn’t put it in such crass terms, but that’s what’s going on.
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 26:  Parents of student...
(Getty Images via @daylife)
Charter schools are booming. “There are now more than 6,000 in the United States, up from 2,500 a decade ago, educating a record 2.3 million children,” according to Reuters.
Charters have a limited admissions policy, and the applications can be as complex as those at private schools. But the parents don’t pay tuition; support comes directly from the school district in which the charter is located.   They’re also lucrative, attracting players like the specialty real estate investment trust EPR Properties EPR -0.93% (EPR). Charter schools are in the firm’s $3 billion portfolio along with retail space and movie megaplexes.
Charter schools are frequently a way for politicians to reward their cronies. In Ohio, two firms operate 9% of the state’s charter schools and are collecting 38% of the state’s charter school funding increase this year. The operators of both firms donate generously to elected Republicans
The Arizona Republic found that charters “bought a variety of goods and services from the companies of board members or administrators, including textbooks, air conditioning repairs and transportation services.” Most charters were exempt from a requirement to seek competitive bids on contracts over $5,000
In Florida, the for-profit school industry flooded legislative candidates with $1.8 million in donations last year. “Most of the money,” reports The Miami Herald, “went to Republicans, whose support of charter schools, vouchers, online education and private colleges has put public education dollars in private-sector pockets.”
Among the big donors: the private equity firm Apollo Group APOL +1.09%, the outfit behind the for-profit University of Phoenix, which has experimented with online high schools. Apollo dropped $95,000 on Florida candidates and committees.
Lest you get the idea charter schools are a “Republican” thing, they’re also favored by big-city Democrats. This summer, 23 public schools closed for good in Philadelphia — about 10% of the total — to be replaced by charters. Charters have a history in Washington, D.C., going back to 1996.
And they were favored by Arne Duncan when he ran Chicago Public Schools. Today, he’s the U.S. secretary of education. In 2009, Duncan rolled out the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” initiative, doling out $4.4 billion in federal money to the states — but only to those states that lifted their caps on the number of charter schools.
Too bad the kids in charter schools don’t learn any better than those in plain-vanilla public schools. Stanford University crunched test data from 26 states. About a quarter of charters delivered better reading scores, but more than half produced no improvement, and 19% had worse results. In math, 29% of the charters delivered better math scores, while 40% showed no difference, and 31% fared worse.
Unimpressive, especially when you consider charter schools can pick and choose their students — weeding out autistic kids, for example, or those whose first language isn’t English. Charter schools in the District of Columbia are expelling students for discipline problems at 28 times the rate of the district’s traditional public schools — where those “problem kids” are destined to return.
Nor does the evidence show that charters spend taxpayers’ money more efficiently. Researchers from Michigan State and the University of Utah studied charters in Michigan, finding they spent $774 more per student on administration, and $1,140 less on instruction.
About the only thing charters do well is limit the influence of teachers’ unions. And fatten their investors’ portfolios.
In part, it’s the tax code that makes charter schools so lucrative: Under the federal “New Markets Tax Credit” program that became law toward the end of the Clinton presidency, firms that invest in charters and other projects located in “underserved” areas can collect a generous tax credit — up to 39% — to offset their costs.
So attractive is the math, according to a 2010 article by Juan Gonzalez in the New York Daily News, “that a lender who uses it can almost double his money in seven years.”

It’s not only wealthy Americans making a killing on charter schools. So are foreigners, under a program critics call “green card via red carpet.”
“Wealthy individuals from as far away as China, Nigeria, Russia and Australia are spending tens of millions of dollars to build classrooms, libraries, basketball courts and science labs for American charter schools,” says a 2012 Reuters report.
The formal name of the program is EB-5, and it’s not only for charter schools. Foreigners who pony up $1 million in a wide variety of development projects — or as little as $500,000 in “targeted employment areas” — are entitled to buy immigration visas for themselves and family members.
“In the past two decades,” Reuters reports, “much of the investment has gone into commercial real estate projects, like luxury hotels, ski resorts and even gas stations. Lately, however, enterprising brokers have seen a golden opportunity to match cash-starved charter schools with cash-flush foreigners in investment deals that benefit both.”
So how can you, as a retail investor, grab a piece of this? How can you reclaim some of your property tax dollars from the fat cats?
As with many other instances of “extraction”… good luck.
Sure, you could buy shares of the aforementioned EPR Properties. Unfortunately, you’re buying strip malls and ski parks along with charter schools. It’s not a “pure play.”
The history of publicly traded charter school firms is limited and ugly. Edison Schools traded publicly from 1999-2003. During that period, it reported one profitable quarter. Shares reached nearly $40 in early 2001… only to crash to 14 cents.
“There’s a risk to taking education to Wall Street,” says Education Week — “one that helps explain why so few publicly traded companies cater to the educational needs of students in elementary, middle and high school.”
That risk is spotlighted by the only pure play currently trading on a U.S. exchange. In December 2007, just as the “Great Recession” got underway, K12 Inc. went public under the ticker symbol LRN.
It has proven, at best, a trading vehicle.
<span class=K12 Inc.” width=”495″ height=”343″ />
Share prices hit nearly a four-year low in December 2012 when The New York Times published an expose on a K12 online charter school venture. Nearly 60% of its students are below grade level in math, and 50% in reading. One-third don’t graduate on schedule.
The story also revealed CEO Ronald Packard collected a salary in 2011 — $5 million — nearly double that of the previous year. And that his bonus is linked not to student performance, but to enrollment.
It’s a lot easier to escape this sort of scrutiny if your charter school venture is privately held — or, in the case of EPR, mixed in with other ventures that have nothing to do with education.
Well, I tried.
“I spend a great deal of time, money and resources looking for new investment ideas that you, dear reader, can act on independently,” I wrote in my Apogee Advisory, early in 2012… “Sometimes what I find instead is outrage.”
For now, the big money in charter schools is confined to those on the inside.  In late 2010, Goldman Sachs announced it would lend $25 million to develop 16 charter schools in New York and New Jersey. The news release said the loans would be “credit-enhanced by funds awarded by the U.S. Department of Education.”  Of course.
Ed. Note: This essay originally appeared at The Daily Reckoning.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Chris Pavone's 'The Accident' fuses literary world, spy craft

Chris Pavone
The cover of "The Accident" and author Chris Pavone. (Crown; Nina Subin),0,2994005.story#ixzz2vIT3iKFL

No advice is more confusing to writers than "write what you know." Taken to its solipsistic extremes, it would mean novelists could not write characters outside of their own gender, race, geography or professional background. While the works of Susan Straight, Khaled Hosseini, Elizabeth George and others make clear the fallacy of that thinking, a writer's experiences and observations do play a significant role, along with research, in creating a believable universe for their characters and stories.
But what of the spy novel? Is special knowledge of spy craft, the inner workings of the CIA, MI6, CIA or Lakam essential in making such fiction credible?
Consider Chris Pavone. A few years ago, the longtime literary editor and ghostwriter moved to Luxembourg to care for his twin sons while his wife took a job in that country. There, Pavone's exposure to similarly uprooted women who knew little of their spouses' work led him to write "The Expats," which masquerades as the story of an expat wife and bored stay-at-home mom but is really a deviously plotted, Edgar-winning thriller that explores the boundaries of honesty, transparency and self-reinvention in marriage, life, and the shape-shifting world of international espionage.
Pavone has again mined his own life experience — this time in the publishing industry, where he worked for almost two decades — to write "The Accident." Told over the course of one fraught 24-hour period on two continents, the novel's heroine is New York literary agent Isabel Reed, battered by tragedy, divorce and being "just old enough to be congenitally uncomfortable with new technologies." Isabel has been up all night compulsively reading "The Accident," a manuscript that landed unsolicited in her in basket at Atlantic Talent Management.
The contents of the tell-all biography of a powerful media magnate, penned by Anonymous, are literary dynamite (for reasons not immediately made clear) and significant enough that Isabel's concerns are not just getting the book to the perfect acquiring editor but trying to figure out how to stay alive long enough to see it published. Before the reader can figure out exactly why, the novel cuts to Hayden Gray, refined cultural attaché and a Paris-based CIA operative introduced in "The Expats." Assisted by Kate Moore (another "Expats" alum), Hayden is surveilling a man in Copenhagen doing research on a book. Is this man "The Accident's" Anonymous, or a fact checker employed by the author? And why should the CIA care?
Pavone layers on further intrigue as he introduces, in successive short chapters, a cast of well-drawn players, all willing to betray one another and their own values at the drop of an eight-figure book deal. Among them: Alexis, Isabel's naively ambitious assistant, who recognizes in her boss a mentor and a launching pad; Jeff Fielder, a once-relevant fortysomething editor at McNally & Sons "who never met a conspiracy theory he didn't like"; Brad McNally, the pot-smoking publisher looking to bring in much-needed revenue to stave off a corporate takeover; and Anonymous, whose relationship to media baron Charlie Wolf provides him with unparalleled knowledge of the tragedy and subsequent dirty tricks at the heart of this too-hot-to-handle biography.
As flashbacks and excerpts from the manuscript are interspersed throughout the novel, readers will come to understand why the secrets that website billionaire Wolf (a self-satisfied mash-up of Arnon Milchan with Ted Turner) and the CIA are keeping would motivate Anonymous to go into hiding in Europe and Hayden Gray to authorize the off-the-books elimination of those even remotely connected to the manuscript. These gruesome events serve to ratchet up the tension for the reader and amplify Isabel, Jeff and Anonymous' desperate search for a way out of this seemingly lose-lose proposition.
"The Accident," like "The Expats," contains enough credible spy craft, dead bodies and incisive observation of the politics and perils of international espionage to pass muster with all but the most persnickety aficionados of the genre. And while Anonymous' identity will probably be obvious to the careful reader, it is Pavone's insights into myriad professional and personal betrayals that infuse "The Accident" with its vibrant core. That and his insider's knowledge of publishing shine, resulting in a novel rich in trenchant details about the motives and machinations of the book business — from genteel back-stabbing in literary agencies and publishing houses to the Pinot Grigio-and-dried-out Manchego book-launch parties.
New York is also knowingly limned here — the private Greenwich Village clubs with rooftop pools and posh midtown brownstones where Isabel seeks help from her well-heeled clients, the Hamptons in all its geographical one-upmanship, where the chase culminates in mayhem and a few surprises that set the stage, one hopes, for more intrigue down the road.
All told, "The Accident" is a propulsive A-train of a thrill ride and worthy successor to Pavone's debut, destined to make readers as compelled to turn its pages as Isabel and her colleagues are to publish the manuscript that spawned it.
Woods has written four mysteries in the Charlotte Justice series and edited several anthologies.

The Accident
A novel
Chris Pavone
Crown: 381 pp., $26

Thursday, March 06, 2014

vote NO on current Regents up for re-appointment

All parents should contact their legislators to vote NO on current Regents up for re-appointment who should be held accountable for their incompetence and refusal to listen to the view of parents and teachers; the vote will take place March 11.

Lawmakers unsure if they'll replace regent incumbents
Gary Stern, TJN 6:16 p.m. EST March 5, 2014

Says the Regents must be held accountable for the much-criticized rollout of the Common Core standards.

Despite widespread criticism of the state Board of Regents for driving the troubled Common Core rollout, it's far from clear that lawmakers will replace any of four incumbents seeking re-election on Tuesday.

Democratic legislators are trying to figure out whether there are enough votes between the Assembly and Senate to support any of close to 20 other candidates for the four seats. If not, the incumbents are likely to be given new five-year terms on the board, which sets education policy for New York.

"The question is which candidates can get enough votes," said Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti, D-Mount Pleasant, who has been harshly critical of the regents and the state Education Department. "This is not just a negative — a case of replacing people. We have to fill the seats."

Regents are elected by an unusual majority vote of the state Assembly and Senate, which traditionally receives little attention. This year, though, the process is being watched closely by parent groups and others because of the regents' aggressive reform agenda, which has created statewide controversy.

Assembly Democrats dominate the process because of their large numbers, with their leadership choosing the initial nominees. But Senate Democrats could play a key role this year in forming a coalition to support or oppose a candidate.
Senate Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said Wednesday that she expects to vote against the four incumbents, even if it will be difficult to gather the votes to support other candidates.

"It's important to send a message that we're paying attention and understand the important role of the regents," she said. "The implementation of the Common Core has been so disastrous, and I understand the anger and frustration in our communities."

On Wednesday, Sens. George Latimer, D-Rye, Cecilia Tkaczyk, D-Schenectady County, Terry Gipson, D-Rhinebeck, and Timothy Kennedy, D-Buffalo, became among the first lawmakers to say they will vote against the incumbents because the regents must be held accountable.

"The incumbents are not bad people, but none were willing to fundamentally reassess the direction we are going in with respect to the Common Core," said Latimer, who attended hours of candidate interviews last month.
The four regents seeking re-election are Christine Cea, who represents Staten Island; James Jackson, who represents Albany; and two at-large members, James Cottrell of Brooklyn and Wade Norwood of Rochester. All four have been generally supportive of the reform agenda promoted by regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Education Commissioner John King.

No incumbent has been rejected in memory.
The challengers are mostly self-nominated candidates with a wide range of experience who drew mixed reviews from legislators. Among them is David Levin of Pomona, a high school math teacher in the Bronx.

Candidates will need the support of 107 legislators to be elected. Republican senators generally boycott the vote because of their lack of say in the process.
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, a member of the Assembly Education Committee who has been very critical of the sweeping changes brought by the regents, said it is unclear who the Assembly leadership may nominate or whether there are enough votes to defeat the incumbents.

One key factor, she said, is that Cea and Jackson are supported by their local legislative delegations.

Paulin, who also attended hours of interviews, said there has been tremendous discussion among Assembly Democrats about how the voting process might go.
"This is a puzzle that hasn't come together yet," Paulin said. "You don't want to scapegoat these four regents, but they were part of the decision-making or ignored it. I'm trying to work with my colleagues to figure out what's best for our schools in the long run."
Twitter: @garysternNY

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Review - Chris Pavone: The Accident

'The Accident': book review

Chris Pavone's suspenseful thriller is set in the worlds of book publishing and global media; also reviewed: Anne Thompson's 'The $11 Billion Year,' Felix Martin's 'Money: The Unauthorized Biography' and Caeli Wolfson Widger's 'Real Happy Family'

Chris Pavone, author of “The Accident”

Chris Pavone follows up "The Expats" with “The Accident,” about a provocative and dangerous book manuscript.

  • Publisher: Crown
  • Genre: Fiction
“The Accident,” Chris Pavone’s followup novel to his debut best seller, “The Expats,” is a slick blend of suspense and savvy as a media overlord’s choke hold on the power establishment is threatened by, of all things, a manuscript.
Wolfe Media, ruled by Charlie Wolfe, ascended by breaking exposés on two dozen websites before consuming newspapers and television stations across the world. In the U.S., its cable channel is a loud, haranguing presence and a ratings triumph.
“The Accident” follows a literary agent as she tries to determine the veracity of an explosive manuscript that has landed on her desk.

“The Accident” follows a literary agent as she tries to determine the veracity of an explosive manuscript that has landed on her desk.

All of that is jeopardized by a manuscript that shows up on the desk of Isabel Reed, the “once-famous” literary agent at Atlantic Talent Management. Reed used to be known for the high-profile books she shepherded onto the best seller lists. But she’s getting older and, slowed by a personal tragedy, is falling behind the hot young things creating buzz in publishing.
Reed knows that what’s revealed is explosive. Wolfe, who has political ambitions, killed a woman in his youth and turned to his powerful father to hatch the coverup. As malignant is the disclosure of the CIA’s involvement in the company’s exposés. It seems Wolfe Media scoops may have been hand-delivered by the agency, the equivalent of a public execution for a targeted politician or businessman.

What the literary agent has reason to doubt is the veracity of the charges, particularly since the title page reads “The Accident by Anonymous.” The email address listed proves defunct. Reed is finally convinced when her assistant, who had a first look at the manuscript before she turned it over, is murdered.
Pavone’s marvelous setup is the prelude to an effective thriller that intercuts scenes from Anonymous’ life on the run, a rogue CIA officer’s pursuit with lethal intent, and Reed’s sometimes quavering efforts to protect the property on the way to publishing it. Also, her life is at stake since she can’t unknow what she has learned even if the manuscript “disappears.”

Read more:

The American Public School Under Siege

michael Brenner 
Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations; Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

The American Public School Under Siege

Posted: Updated:
A feature of the Obama presidency has been his campaign against the American public school system, eating way at the foundations of elementary education. That means the erosion of an institution that has been one of the keystones of the Republic. The project to remake it as a mixed public/private hybrid is inspired by a discredited dogma that charter schools perform better. This article of faith serves an alliance of interests -- ideological and commercial -- for whom the White House has been point man. A President whose tenure in office is best known for indecision, temporizing and vacillation has been relentless since day one in using the powers of his office to advance the cause. Such conviction and sustained dedication is observable in only one other area of public policy: the project to expand the powers and scope of the intelligence agencies that spy on, and monitor the behavior of persons and organizations at home as well as abroad.
The audacity of the project is matched by the passive deference that it is accorded. There is no organized opposition -- in civil society or politics. Only a few outgunned elements fight a rearguard action against a juggernaut that includes Republicans and Democrats, reactionaries and liberals -- from Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York to the nativist Christian Right of the Bible Belt. All of this without the national "conversation" otherwise so dear to the hearts of the Obama people, without corroboration of its key premises, without serious review of its consequences, without focused media attention.
This past week, as the deadline approached for states to make their submissions to Arne Duncan's Department of Education requesting monies appropriated under the Race to the Top initiative, we were reminded that the DOE has decreed that no proposal will be considered where the state government has put a cap on charter schools. In other words, the federal government has put its thumb heavily on the scales of local deliberations as to what approach toward charter schools best serves their communities' interests. Penalties are being imposed on those who choose to limit, in any quantitative way, the charter school movement.
This heavy-handed use of federal leverage by the Obama administration should not come as a surprise. After all, Obama himself has been a consistent, highly vocal advocate of "privatization." He has travelled the country from coast to coast, like Johnny Appleseed, sowing distrust of public schools and - especially - public school teachers. They have been blamed for what ails America - the young unprepared for the 21st century globalized economy; the shortage of engineers; high drop-out rates; school districts' financial woes, whatever.*
To hear Mr. Obama explain it, one would think that full employment in 2007 turned into the lowest rate of employment among working age adults in 40 years in 2013 because of America's teachers falling down on the job - the failure of public schools to prepare students for radical structural changes in the job market. He downplays the Wall Street/Fed created financial crisis or his administration's mishandling of the recovery effort. Nor does it have anything to do with downsizing, outsourcing, and the business world's discovery that productivity can rise by paying workers less and resorting to temps. As for the financial squeeze on school districts, this too was laid at the door of greedy teachers unions who resisted having their salaries cut or their contracted pensions slashed. They became scapegoats for a condition stemming from the protracted Great Recession and the austerity mania that his rhetoric and actions helped to promote.
Let us recall some highlights of this presidential campaign. In 2010, Education Secretary Arne Duncan castigated public school teachers in Rhode Island for going on strike to protest arbitrary changes in working conditions and wages while encouraging authorities to fire them if necessary. He "applauded" the move to fire every teacher at Central Falls High School (as reported in the Providence Journal). This is from an administration that never asked anyone to resign from AIG, Bank of America, CITI, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Fannie Mae or Sally Mae.
Similarly, in 2012-2013, Obama lent the tacit backing of the White House to Rahm Emanuel's strategy for busting the Chicago teachers union and for a mass closing of public schools. The follow-on 'charter' program has been cited as rife with corruption. Secretary Duncan has been given free rein to use the powers of his department to cajole and pressure states into the unqualified promotion of charter schools -- whatever the record shows about their mediocre record.
Duncan's office has been the moving force behind a concerted effort to conceal the reality of what charter schools have, and have not, accomplished. The truth is not very pretty. Overall, the performance of their students on standardized tests, and graduation rates, are marginally worse on than those of the country's public schools. The drop-out rate among minorities is actually higher.** This dismal record is despite the preferential treatment that charter schools' receive: subsidies above and beyond the budgets of counterpart public schools; the cherry-picking of students that excludes many of those with chronic learning and/or discipline problems and/or from non-English speaking families; etc.
Other results are more favorable - for investors. A number of start-up companies have jumped onto the charter school bandwagon with little experience in education and with their eyes fixed on the bottom line. They hire a disproportionately large percentage of young teachers who may be highly motivated but who lack the essential seasoning that makes for quality teaching. These youngsters of course are given lower salaries that veteran teachers would receive. This exploitation is encouraged by Arne Duncan who makes much of the opportunities thereby created to tap the market of unemployed recent college graduates. It supposedly is a good and virtuous thing that they may spend only a few years in the classroom before moving on to other career "experiences" - to be replaced by yet another batch of enthusiastic, underpaid novices. Several states, e.g. Texas, do not even require charter schools to hire certified teachers - easy come, easy go. Presumably, the senior teachers who are laid off as their public schools are shuttered are expected to retrain as greeters at COSTCO and Target. Their expectations of being solidly middle class then will be fulfilled by their children who avail themselves of Obama's shaky ladders of opportunity to acquire the skills needed to entrepreneur their own charter school companies.
Shouldn't we ponder this question: what reasonable, qualified, person would be inclined to pursue teaching as a career under these circumstances? In fact, the voluntary drop-out rate of school teachers is at historical highs. Nationally, 16% leave after the first year; approximately 45% leave within five years. This is significantly higher than the student fail rate. Of Florida's 2,280 public elementary and middle schools, only 17 scored an "F" on the FCAT. Of the state's 270 Charter elementary and middle schools, 15 flunked. In Ohio, in one year the state's school report card gave more than half of Ohio's 328 charter schools a D or an F. Many charter schools themselves fail under their own weight; 15% of those established since 1995 have gone bust. In Florida, which does no significant monitoring of charter schools, the failure rate is double that. 17 charter schools in Columbus closed in one year - 2013. Nine of the 17 schools that closed lasted only a few months this past fall. When they closed, more than 250 students had to find new schools. The state spent more than $1.6 million in taxpayer money to keep the nine schools open only from August through October or November.
Where are the students thereby abandoned shunted to - with what disruption in their
To round out this picture, the White House hypes opening pre-college education to the money and influence of business. President Obama in recent months has been touring the country to tout these partnerships wherein curriculum, teaching methods, and materials are designed in part by the businesses who may hire these vocationally trained graduates. Vocational training does have a long history in the United States at the secondary level and it is not entirely a bad thing; we need highly skilled machinists. What we do not need are students siphoned away from a liberal education to be molded into drones to serve the corporate machine. Can we trust business interests with the main responsibility for structuring, and partly financing such programs - at a time when austerity policies continue to cut back public spending and local school boards are under immense pressure to privatize?
The distressing truth of the matter is that, in most states, any group of guys able to present what looks like a "sound business plan" can obtain a certificate to set up a charter school. The most worrying phenomenon is the manipulation of charter school curriculum to serve the ideological interests of the groups that run them. In Texas, Indiana, Ohio and other states, "creationism" and related Bible based 'science' has replaced standard approaches. (Slate Jan 16) A Right- wing interpretation of American history that, among other things, casts the New Deal as the workings of "un-American" spirit in the land is becoming commonplace. The businessman's view as to government's role in regulation also is gaining authority and prominence. In short, the charter school way is entrenching the ideas and attitudes of a sectarian element in American society whose ascendance already has wrought enormous damage. That a Democratic president should be the agent of this transformation is a telling commentary on where this White House and those who back him to the bitter end have gone wrong.
Of all the institutions that made the United States into a coherent society, none made a greater contribution than our public schools. It was they that fashioned a loyal citizenry bound by a core of civic values and a collective identity -- regardless of creed, national origin, religion or political preference. It was they that molded a disparate population into a unified nation. That may not be the case in the future.

* The relatively poor performance of students in the United States on standardized tests compared to students in other developed countries is misleading. When allowance is made for those from non-English speaking homes and disadvantaged racial communities, American students score close to the top of the table. (Education Law Center)
**The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found in a 2009 report that 17% of charter schools outperformed their public school equivalents, while 37% of charter schools performed worse than regular local schools, and the rest were about the same.

Newark: 700 teachers may be laid off, many replaced by TFA - Is it Time for Teachers to Strike?

Newark: 700 teachers may be laid off, many replaced by TFA

camichristieThe state administration of the Newark Public Schools (NPS) is expected to lay off hundreds of experienced city teachers and replace many  with new hires, including more than 300 members of Teach for America (TFA).  The report comes from union sources but is supported both by the latest version of the state’s “One Newark” plan and by the Walton Family Foundation website. The foundation is expected to subsidize the hiring of the new teachers.

The NPS has not responded to requests for information or confirmation or denial of previous reports that Cami Anderson, the state-appointed superintendent of Newark schools, will ask outgoing state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf to waive seniority rights of hundreds of Newark teachers. This would permit their firing without resort to the detenuring process. Members of the Newark school board, however, confirmed Anderson’s plans to “right-size” the teaching staff.
The Waltons will do to Newark teachers what they do to Wal-Mart workers
The Waltons will do to Newark teachers what they do to Wal-Mart workers
The Walton Family Foundation website posted this note:  “Due to the impact of Teach For America’s corps members and alumni in the region, the Walton Family Foundation announced that they will support the recruitment, training and support of nearly 370 Newark area teachers over the next two years. This will undoubtedly mean great things for Newark’s students, parents and communities.”
According to the union sources, Anderson will attempt to fire some 700 teachers and replace about half with new hires, including the TFA members. According to the TFA regional website, Newark schools already have hired some 200 members.  They are usually graduates of liberal art programs who sign up for two years to teach in low-income areas and then leave.
Anderson herself is both a TFA graduate and an executive with the  foundation-financed TFA, an organization that also receives federal subsidies.
The Walton family owns and operates Wal-Mart stores. Their website indicates the foundation has “invested” more than $1 billion to promote “reforms” of its own liking—including the vast expansion of charter and other privatized schools and the hiring of TFA  members over conventionally trained ublic school teachers.
The mass layoff of experienced teachers and their replacement by new and untrained college graduates is part of Anderson’s “One Newark” plan that seeks to expand charter school enrollments, close conventional neighborhood public schools, and sell off school property.”Right-sizing” staff and hiring “quality” teachers also are mentioned in the latest version of the plan.
“One Newark” echoes the goals of the Walton Family Foundation which describes its role this way:
“The Walton Family Foundation invests in districts and organizations that improve the way teachers are selected, trained and compensated; close and replace low-performing schools with high-quality autonomous schools; and address weaknesses in the governance, management and instructional performance of public charter and private schools.”
Anderson is expected to announce her plans at the next school board meeting Tuesday. To fire tenured teachers, she must gain state approval of a “waiver” of seniority rules. Cerf, a strong backer of Anderson’s actions, is expected to grant the waiver.
Newark Teachers Union president Joseph Del Grosso said he expects the dismissed teachers to be drawn from the so-called “Educators without placement,” or EWPS, hundreds of teachers who, for a variety of reasons, have been reassigned to central office but not regular classrooms. Anderson also may seek to dismiss regularly working teachers in her efforts to break both seniority and tenure in the city.
Del Grosso said he expects the union to seek an injunction to block Anderson’s plans.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

'Conceptual agreement' reached in Portland teacher contract talks

'Conceptual agreement' reached in Portland teacher contract talks
By Max Barr, Published: Feb 18, 2014 at 6:17 AM PST Last Updated: Feb 18, 2014 at 1:26 PM PST
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'Conceptual agreement' reached in Portland teacher contract talks
This photo, posted on the Portland Association of Teachers Facebook page, shows the union bargaining team at work during Monday's 23-hour negotiation session.
PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Public Schools and the Portland Association of Teachers reached a "conceptual agreement" on a new teacher contract after a 23-hour bargaining session that lasted until early Tuesday morning.
Both sides agreed to meet again later Tuesday to put the agreement in writing in the form of a tentative agreement. When the tentative agreement is signed, the teachers union will suspend the strike planned for Thursday.
The school board told its bargaining staff to put the agreement in writing after a two-hour executive session Tuesday morning.
PPS spokeswoman Christine Miles said both sides were "very focused on an outcome that's best for our students."
"We're building the foundation for both sides for a good future and a good education for our students, so I think we should all be very proud that both sides stayed at the table," Miles said. "They could have walked away at any time but they didn't."
Superintendent Carole Smith said she looked forward to finalizing the tentative agreement later Tuesday.
"After 10 months of difficult negotiations and hard work by both sides, I am very pleased that PPS and PAT have reached a conceptual agreement," said Smith.
The teachers union announced the agreement Tuesday morning on its Facebook page:
"Your bargaining team has reached a conceptual agreement with the district!" the post read. "Given that the teams have been bargaining for 23 straight hours, we will come back together later today to iron out the details and put it in writing in the form of a Tentative Agreement. When we have a signed Tentative Agreement, the strike will be suspended pending ratification by PAT membership and the Board."
Details of the agreement will not be released until the PAT approves the contract.
The school district also announced school will begin at the regular time Wednesday, but will release two-and-a-half hours early.
An agreement to suspend the strike would avoid the first teacher walkout in Oregon's largest school district. Portland Public Schools has 48,000 students and 2,900 teachers.
Portland Mayor Charlie Hales said Tuesday's agreement was great news.
"Today’s tentative agreement is an example of the union and the district putting the students first. My staff and I were in near-constant communication with both sides over the past several weeks, and throughout it all, I believed cooler heads would prevail," Hales said in a statement to KATU on Tuesday morning.
"This is great news, and I remain as hopeful as ever that this will lead to a lasting agreement and a contract."
The district planned to cancel classes through Monday for replacement staff training. Some schools were set to reopen Tuesday with substitute teachers.
Marathon bargaining session
The agreement came after the two sides worked through the night Monday hoping to avoid the first-ever teacher strike in Oregon's largest school district.
The two sides negotiated at an undisclosed location from 9 a.m. Monday to around 8 a.m. Tuesday.
The PAT submitted its latest proposal to the district just after 11 p.m. Monday, Miles told KATU.
Both sides were “focused on trying to hammer out some kind of agreement,” Miles said.
Both PPS and the PAT were posting updates on the negotiations on their Facebook pages.
The two sides had been negotiating a new contract for months. The main sticking points included class sizes, teacher workload, health benefits and number of school days.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available. Stay with KATU News all day for updates on FacebookTwitter and our evening newscasts starting at 4 p.m.
KATU's Valerie Hurst and Dan Cassuto contributed to this story

Notes on a Staggering ISO

The Slow Death of "Leninism"

Notes on a Staggering ISO

It might be obvious from articles appearing on CounterPunch (“A Response to Our Socialist Worker Critics”, to name just one) that former members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) have decided to subject the self-described “Leninist” group to a withering critique.
In a recent development, current members constituted as the Renewal Faction have joined the chorus of critics as well, something that will obviously irk a leadership accustomed to fawning approval from the ranks. Indicating the general movement toward web-based debate and discussion and away from the print-based medium favored by small propaganda groups operating in the “Leninist” tradition, the faction launched a website titled “External Bulletin”, a term that very likely challenges the notion of the “Internal Bulletin”, the members-only medium that allows such groups to conduct their discussions without the prying eyes of non-members.
Unfortunately for the ISO, the internal bulletin might have become a relic of the Leninist past after a disgruntled member or members decided to forward PDF’s of 30 (at last count) documents to selected critics of the ISO, including me. Over the past few days, I have read maybe 100 pages worth of internal discussion articles and want to offer my analysis of what is happening with the largest “Leninist” organization in the United States (I exclude the CP, which operates more as a wing of the Democratic Party.) As someone who spent nearly 12 years in the American Socialist Workers Party from 1967 to 1978 (now there’s a screenplay begging to be written: “12 Years a Sectarian”), I can recognize the pressures operating on the ISO that will inevitably generate discontent.
One wonders if the ISO leaders might have anticipated the “security breach” that allowed the documents to become public. After all, in the electronic age, what’s to prevent a Marxist version of Edward Snowden from cropping up? This is especially true given the leaks that took place in the British SWP, the group that spawned the ISO. Those leaks were focused primarily on the British SWP’s refusal to punish a top leader who had allegedly raped a young female member. As is the case with bureaucratic institutions in general such as the Catholic Church and the military, there is a tendency to defend those in power, no matter what they do. If you’ve reached the point where you’ve become tired of bureaucratic abuse from the ISO leadership, why not let the rest of the left know what’s going on behind closed doors?
I want to address the question of the “right” of a Leninist organization to keep its discussions shielded from public view at the end of this article, but will start with an evaluation of the ISO’s current woes, which according to both sides in the dispute is very real.
The best place to start is with an article titled “Why have we stagnated?” written by someone who appears to be supporter of the leadership. He writes:
We Have a Problem 
Frustration and disorientation are prevalent throughout the ISO right now and have been for a few years. There are multiple symptoms – the persistent difficulties maintaining SW tablings or a host of other routines (treasury, ISR, publicity); the need to repeatedly push for regular public meetings, many of which aren’t all that “public”; the greater number and length of extended breaks or leaves taken by experienced members (particularly over summer). Much of our leadership spends much of its time propping up basic aspects of branch activity or trying to win frustrated members back to activity. These are the signs of malaise, not of vitality.
When I read this, everything fell into place. This sounds exactly like what happens in all “Leninist” groups during the “mature” phase of their life cycle. Unless a group becomes a full-blown cult, as was the case with the American SWP, there are centripetal forces that operate on the rank-and-file as they begin to reach their thirties and discover that a socialist revolution is not on the immediate agenda. “A host of other routines” begins to compete with raising kids, shopping, working overtime, and just generally doing what it takes to survive life in capitalist America. Like most groups that operate in the name of the proletariat, the plain fact is that the ISO recruited most of its members from college campuses rather than the factory. After they graduated, they probably took whatever jobs were available in a declining economy: public schoolteachers (a strategically important job for leftists), web developers, social workers, librarians, etc. As far as I can tell, the ISO never carried out a “turn” toward the proletariat that would have forced its members to work in a slaughterhouse or textile mill. That would have only accelerated the phenomenon of “extended breaks”. Trust me on that one.
As might be expected, ISO leaders took the opportunity to rally the troops but without the piss and vinegar that such occasions demand. In a key document titled “Perspectives”, the tone was one of “hang in there, comrades”. This was written in the name of The Steering Committee, a body that is all-knowing and all-powerful:
No one really believes that it’s going to be “onward and upward” from the first protest or movement planning meeting. That caricature defies even a few days’ experience as a socialist. But it’s sometimes hard to shake the sense that a period of political unrest and polarization ought to have at least a general upward trend. The reality, though, based on the experiences of the past, is more complicated. Sometimes there are sharp and sustained breakthroughs, and sometimes there are a steady stream of advances. But there are also ups and downs in a struggle or movement, and in the midst of a down phase, it’s not clear if or when the next up is coming.
If it is difficult to predict when “the next up is coming”, what do we do in the meantime? A large part of this boils down to “keeping the powder dry”, going out on training exercises, and doing all the things a “cadre” is expected to do until the next war began. I remember when I first heard the term cadre from a veteran SWP’er in 1968—he pronounced it “codder”. It came from the military and meant “officer corps” basically. When a war broke out, the officers were expected to lead enlisted men. The left adopted the term to mean those people with an advanced understanding of Marxism who would be the natural leadership of the proletarian masses. Since the Trotskyist movement is the Oxford/Harvard of the left—at least in the eyes of its adherents—you would expect it to be the main supplier of cadre. For obvious reasons, the proletariat found it quite easy to ignore such self-designated leaders in large-scale revolutionary struggles.
In an article titled “Theory, cadre, and continuity: Building revolutionary organization today”, a long-time leader speaking for The Steering Committee made the case for the Marxist version of Officers Candidate School:
But regardless of the period, the state of the class struggle, and the size of the revolutionary left, what is absolutely essential is the training of cadres capable of thinking and applying Marxism creatively and able to both learn from and provide leadership in struggle.
Unfortunately what is missing from this calculation is any understanding that “training” is inimical to the development of Marxist thinkers and activists. Whether or not these people are consciously making a parallel with the military, the fact is that “training” in small propaganda groups inevitably turns out people who imitate the party leaders, just as a West Point freshman would emulate a General Petraeus. This is in the nature of all institutions, Leninist, military, or clerical. A revolutionary movement is strongest when it can rely on the talents of people who have learned to think and act for themselves. While revolutions are a product of collective action, they only succeed when strong-minded and strong-willed people come together to change society—not sycophants. Leninist groups unfortunately are schools for sycophancy.
A large part of the article is directed against Shaun Joseph, a former member who is sensitive to the question of developing true cadre. In other words people who have the backbone to tell an Ahmed Shawki that he is full of beans when the occasion demands it. Joseph wrote an article titled “Valences of the united front (III): The struggle for culture” that did not mince words:
The common view in the ISO, I think, is that the comrades at the Center are the “top cadre” of the group. Actually they are not cadre at all. That’s not to say they’re unimportant: a centralist organization needs national leadership just like an army needs generals. However, a cadre that identifies itself with the national leadership, that does not see itself as an independent and irreverent layer, is not fulfilling its function as a cadre–just like an army full of sycophantic captains is doomed to fail in battle.
Although I would prefer that the term cadre go into the ashbin of history, Joseph’s notion of “an army full of sycophantic captains” pretty much sums up the secondary leadership of all Leninist organizations. How can it be otherwise? When I joined the SWP in 1967, I was told that Leon Trotsky, who was Lenin’s choice for assuming leadership of the Communist movement after he passed on, trained the leaders. I told myself , these people must really be something special. Who am I to question them? I can’t say that my experience is at all typical of those who have “graduated” from such sects, but being forced to think and act for myself was the only way I could truly develop politically.
The peer pressure in groups like the ISO is enormous. Although their constitution is filled with guarantees of the right to criticize the party line, they are beside the point. For the average member of such groups, you tend to parrot what is in the party press and look for reassurance from those around you. Shunning or even the threat of shunning is the main instrument of ideological conformity in Leninist groups, when all is said and done.
Try as they may, there is no way that the ISO can break through the glass ceiling that is keeping them at their current levels of membership and political influence. It is their very nature that condemns them to “stagnation”. It is their “Leninism” that works against them since it is a barrier reef that separates them from the tens of thousands of people anxious to resist the capitalist system but not ready to hook up with a small propaganda group that puts onerous restrictions on their ability to live a normal life. Not everybody is a footloose rebel with an Ivy League degree or in some cases a trust fund after all.
All such groups have a natural life cycle, just like a plant or animal. They usually start out with a charismatic leader—usually a man but not exclusively–in his 20s or 30s who has both the time and the energy to build up a following, generally from the middle-class. Within a year or so, depending on the proximity of their ideology to the actual political conditions, they can build up to several dozen members. And then if the stars align themselves correctly, they can become an organization of a thousand or more. When the ISO was riding high in the saddle ten years ago, I am sure it projected unlimited growth. I attended an evening session of a conference they hosted in 2004, mostly in order to hear my old friend and comrade Peter Camejo. It was like attending a pep rally with the speakers leading the audience in chants as a warm-up for Peter.
Ten years can be an eternity for members of such groups. So many pep rallies, so many newspaper sales, and so many singings of the Internationale but capitalism keeps rolling along. Was this what I signed up for, many members must ask. Thus we see the “the greater number and length of extended breaks or leaves taken by experienced members”, a prelude to the inevitable resignation for “personal reasons”.
All in all, another approach is not only possible but also desperately needed. To put it in shorthand, we need something like an American Syriza—a broad left-of-center party that can accept people on their own terms ideologically as long as they adhere to key programmatic demands such as:
–Run election campaigns opposed to corporate rule, against both Republicans and Democrats.
–Organize campaigns against environmental despoliation from fracking to mountaintop removal.
–Strengthen the trade unions through organizing drives aimed at the most exploited workers.
In reality, these sorts of demands are not that different from those of the Communist Manifesto that calls, for example, for “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax” and “Free education for all children in public schools.”
Once you dump overboard all the ideological baggage that comes with groups posturing as a latter-day Bolshevik Party and stick to basic demands that lend themselves to independent mass political action, recruitment is no longer a big problem. Nor is burnout, a function of small groups trying to substitute themselves for the muscle of a large party that can attract real-life workers, something that is simply beyond the means of small propaganda groups trafficking in the iconography of the Russian Revolution. We need our own political symbols and language; let’s consign the hammer and sickle and the red star to the museum or mausoleum where they belong.
Finally, on the question of “security”, as if putting the ISO documents on the Internet is going to jeopardize their members. Does anybody in their right mind not understand that the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and local red squads know exactly what every single ISO member is up to? Mike Ely, the leader of an Internet sect called the Kasama Project, has been raising hell over the publication of the documents but that’s what spending too much time in Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party can do to a person.
The real issue is not security, but the right of a sect to keep its deliberations a secret. When you stop and think about it, all of these “Leninist” groups operate on a mercantile basis that is concerned with maximizing market share. Their internal bulletins are analogous to reports discussed by the board of directors leading up to a sales campaign. What business is it of Pepsi to know what Coca-Cola is up to? How can we let Socialist Alternative know what we have planned for 2014? Hush now, comrades. Mum’s the word.
While I will not be around fifty years from now, I am convinced that “Leninism” will be long dead. If we are fortunate enough to be capable of rallying the forces needed to transform American society, it will be on a basis that has little to do with the imagery associated with the Smolny Institute and the Winter Palace. We will write our own future based on the living struggle that we surely have in front of us. Every effort has to be bent toward uniting the greatest number of people on a principled class basis. In a way it is too bad that ISO cannot understand the role it can play in helping to catalyze such a movement. One hopes that they can figure out a way to emerge out of the existing stagnation and rise to the occasion.
Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.