I had the distinct pleasure of attending the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s annual conference last week in Washington, D.C. It was an extremely well organized event, and I have to say that it brought tears of joy to my eyes to be among over 3,500 attendees meeting back in person. The last time that the Alliance did not hold their conference virtually was in 2019. It was amazing to hear so many participants talk passionately about the power of school choice.
My itinerary took me to three early morning lectures on the topic of charter school advocacy by former D.C. Teachers’ Union president George Parker. Mr. Parker explained to the audience that he had taught mathematics in traditional D.C. middle and high schools for thirty-three years before becoming head of the union in 2005. He held that position during the most transformative years of education reform in the nation’s capital. Adrian Fenty was elected Mayor in 2006 and he appointed Michelle Rhee the first Chancellor of DCPS upon taking office in 2007. By 2010, Mr. Parker, Mr. Fenty, and Ms. Rhee would all be out of their respective positions.
Mr. Parker would be voted out of his leadership post as a result of working with Ms. Rhee to reduce the power of teacher seniority and implement the IMPACT evaluation system that tied raises to student academic achievement. Both were groundbreaking highly controversial moves that would eventually be replicated throughout the nation. His cooperation with Ms. Rhee earned him the attention of American Federation of Teachers’ head Randi Weingarten, who, he informed those in the room, tried to sabotage his efforts.
The logical question is how did the president of a teachers’ union become a charter school supporter? Mr. Parker’s explanation sent a chill through those of us in the room. He related that as part of his role with the WTU he would sometimes get the opportunity to speak in front of students. After one such assembly a girl in the third grade came up to him and gave him a hug. He thought the action of the student was unusual, and so he asked her why she had approached him in this fashion. The pupil replied that it was because he stated that he would always work to support those in the classroom.
It was when he was driving in his car after the talk that Mr. Parker had a stunning realization. He faced the stark fact that he had just lied to these young people. He recalled that just that morning he had spent over $10,000 of union membership money to get an individual who should never have been teaching back in that role. He bravely decided on the spot to end his hypocrisy.
Mr. Parker’s story stands in sharp relief to the words of Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews. In an article yesterday entitled, “Don’t blame teachers unions for bad schools. Worry instead about inertia,” he writes,
“So, unions, like most of us, can be helpful or hurtful. But are they quashing attempts to make our schools better, as the [Wall Street] Journal suggests? My reporting on the most productive school reforms indicates they are not doing that.”
It is an abject affront to reality for Mr. Mathews to make this claim so I am not going to waste any words refuting his declaration. As Mr. Parker pointed out in one of his talks, “Unions do not have a fear of spreading false information.”
The world right now needs many more George Parkers.