The Grand Rapids Education Association is in danger of letting itself being defined by what it is against. If the recent ad is any indication, they’re doing a good job of self-destructive behavior.
We may think of their problem in perhaps three or four acts, a drama that ultimately leaves GREA weaker, not stronger
With five people running and the GREA highlighting two to vote against, this creates an odd dynamic, that the GRPS is best served by the other three, that the weakest of the three is better than the stronger of the two. This may be a mistaking of the short term political for the long term strategic interests of the community — this is often the result of negative campaigns. The danger for the GREA is that it loses trust with those who look for stronger civic leadership for the schools. GREA is not served by appearing to seek less than the best for the schools.
The second difficulty that emerges is simply that most likely one of the two attacked candidates will have a seat on the School Board. The aggressive campaign has then created an enemy on the board, some one less inclined to listen. Strategically, the union would be far better positioned were it to think of what happens after elections.
However, where the union goes fundamentally off track is its tone deaf approach to the subject of race. Both Smithalexander and Lenear are African American; the schools of the Southeast side are strongly minority; and yet we have the union objecting with a most peculiar image: the angry white guy. This attack is made all the more acute by the inability of the GREA to find a minority candidate to support. Between the all-white slate and the insensitivity of the ad, we have a perceptual gap that betrays the work of teachers in the system. In dealing with the administration, such an approach simply gives another reason for the Superintendent to marginalize the concerns of the teachers: their concerns will be discounted as the product of racial bias.
But race does not exhaust the difficulties.
The great difficulty with the GREA’s campaign has been their trafficking in the short term tactic of alienation. This politics of populist resentment has dogged Grand Rapids schools for a generation. In the present economic crisis, this turn to alienation has deeper consequences. The prosperity of the region will depend on its ability to support strong schools. The luxury of saying no (and expecting no consequences) has disappeared.
Finally, there is a second alienation that is also present in this election and generally with the relations between the GREA and GRPS. Urban school districts have been fighting over reformers — generally those seeking more accountability — and those seeking to upgrade teaching as the path to excellence. Both paths are necessary, but as was seen at last year’s Democratic Convention, it can lead to confrontation. Some part of the battle in Grand Rapids can be seen as the alliance of minority community and the school administration against more traditional teacher-centric interests. Again, success for our schools will depend on aligning the interests of parents, the administration, the teachers, and the community stakeholders.
The days are past when the school concerns can be easily separated from the broader issues of community economic health.