Andy Stern is back. This time, it's ed reform.
by C.M. Lewis
Andy Stern, former President of Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU)—whose name is still synonymous with unionism by fiat, and who was unceremoniously ejected from the labor movement in 2010—is back in the news with a piece on charters and education reform for The Daily Beast. Spoiler: as it turns out, Stern thinks we need to disrupt education by bringing a Silicon Valley ethos to the classroom.
Stern’s post-union career has been characterized by a hard pivot toward the tech sector and abandonment of interest in the labor movement. It’s been quite the 180° for the modern era’s most notorious union leader: among other things, he’s written a book on the universal basic income, represented Airbnb in negotiations with SEIU, and lounged in a cushy position with Columbia University (itself no paragon of labor rights).
He now works as a Senior Fellow at the Economic Security Project, which—you guessed it—pushes the universal basic income as a solution to all social ills. A glance at their backers is a wild ride through ostensibly liberal elites. Several of his Steering Committee compatriots at the Economic Security Project are venture capitalists, and some are involved in charter school expansion; Instagram founder Mike Krieger’s “Future Justice Fund” holds a seat, too.
Even Walter Reuther, the former head of the United Auto Workers and the architect of the concessionary Treaty of Detroit, would say “now, hold on here.”
It’s no surprise that Stern thinks that the same market-driven, Silicon Valley “solutions” should enter the education sphere. In his words, “United by a ‘can-do’ culture of experimentation that accepts failure, the Valley regularly generates disruptive ideas and creates companies that change the world”—an eyebrow-raising assessment from a former labor leader. Stern has peddled the same utopian (or dystopian, depending on who you ask) vision of benevolent saviors in paeans on the universal basic income for right-wing Cato Institute forums—and, really, for anyone that’ll still listen to him.
Unsurprisingly, Stern doesn’t actually offer much in the way of concrete proposals; really, all he has to say is that “some charters are good, but they’re not effective, so let’s bring in some Silicon Valley billionaire vultures to disrupt education and save the kids.” The ability of tech billionaires to offer solutions is assumed: after all, didn’t they give us Siri and Alexa? Why wouldn’t that translate into teaching our kids? Who would doubt that Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey can teach the children?
This is, in fact, the assumption behind Stern’s foray into education policy: that education reform—the played-out billionaire-driven agenda that spent the past few decades gutting our public schools and privatizing the education sector—is still the solution. Just add venture capital, some paternalistic tech billionaires, and mix till blended. Take Cambiar Education, which he glowingly cites as a model and where he sits on the Board. It’s populated with Teach for America alumni, including anti-union Michelle Rhee acolytes like Kaya Henderson and one of Austin Beutner’s predecessors at Los Angeles Unified, John Deasy.
It’s not that charters are bad, after all: it’s that they’re too incremental and don’t disrupt education fast enough.
Stern has made his post-union career serving as a hype man for anti-worker interests; all they need to do is show they have a former union head on their side to say “See, we’re not so bad!” It’s no surprise that he came out swinging in favor of friendlier, gentler education reform right as the teacher revolt against school privatization reached its pinnacle in Los Angeles. Someone’s got to carry water for the folks picking apart our education system; if he undercuts a union victory in the process, well—it wouldn’t be the first time.
Stern may not be convincing anyone in organized labor, and he’s certainly not convincing teachers. But he does do something insidious: give cover to some of the worst social actors around; ones that think that just because they’ve amassed billions, they can use society as a laboratory. His participation and support allows them to pretend that they do have the interests of workers in mind, and that their policies won’t hurt working families. After all, Stern was the “New Face of Labor.”
Stern’s spectre still hasn’t been completely exorcised from organized labor, or from the broader political discussion. Folks like David Rolf still wield influence, and SEIU has struggled to oust the predators and abusive bullies Stern cultivated like Scott Courtney and Dave Regan. He’s still invited to talk to “thought leaders,” and prominent activists like Barbara Ehrenreich, Cecile Richards, and Robert Reich promote his work.
He’s problematic, sure—but he’s still getting invited to Thanksgiving, even though everyone knows he’ll ruin dinner by complaining about Sal Rosselli.
Enough is enough. Carrying water for education reform in 2019 is too far; doing it right as 35,000 teachers fought and won against the wholesale privatization of the second largest public school system in the country is unconscionable. Touting a pie-in-the-sky vision of future automation, innovated and disrupted schools, and benevolent tech billionaires doesn’t change the basic fact that we live in a moment in which it’s been made painfully clear that the elite don’t care about us, and that their interests are not our interests.
It’s a nice vision, Andy, but we’ll pass.
C.M. Lewis is a union staffer in Central Pennsylvania and a member of UAW Local 1981. The views above are strictly his own.