For the second time in three years, the top African-American official in the Florida Education Association has been pushed out of the organization. FEA Chief of Staff Alfreda Davis, the former Chief of Staff for Washington, D.C. mayor Anthony Williams and a gifted leader, has been given a severance check after only 15 months on the job. She had replaced Aaron Wallace, who met a similar fate.
This is painful to watch, both as a former FEA local president who for years pushed the organization to be more progressive, and as the current head of a scholarship program that serves low-income children of color. Alfreda told me she was eager to move FEA beyond its siege mentality and wanted to find common ground with social justice programs like the one I lead – a Tax Credit Scholarship that gives more learning options to low-income families. But soon after we began strategizing she left.
Alfreda and other progressive leaders within FEA, such as Gary Stevenson, the FEA’s former Director of Organizing and Field Services who left just prior to Alfreda, were frustrated with how conservative the organization had become. They were particularly concerned about the FEA’s refusal to reach out and find common ground with low-income families, especially low-income families of color.
I’ve known some of the men now running the organization for more than 30 years. They have a strong intellectual commitment to progressive values, including racial equality, but they are committed to a model of public education and blue-collar industrial unionism that is incapable of delivering equal opportunity and social justice, and it’s this contradiction that is crippling the organization and eroding its effectiveness. A top-down, command and control model of public education that systematically disempowers teachers and parents will always be less effective and efficient, and organizing a union around protecting this system will always be a losing proposition. That’s where the FEA is today.
In the mid-1990s I wrote a series of essays calling for a new unionism in public education. I argued that instead of using our collective power to protect teachers from dysfunctional systems, we should use our power to transform these systems. My friend Bob Chase was elected NEA president in 1995 on a new unionism platform, but abandoned the idea when faced with heavy opposition from the NEA’s industrial unionists. The concept has been dead ever since.
Public education is in desperate need of a progressive union movement that embraces social justice activists such as Alfreda Davis and Gary Stevenson. Unfortunately, the conservatism that now permeates our education unions is going to be with us for a while.