BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A new ad promoting an Idaho education overhaul recycles a 3-year-old speech from a retired union leader, using a portion of it out of context to bash those trying to repeal the changes on Nov. 6.
The advertisement unveiled Monday on the Internet and Idaho television and radio stations uses an excerpt from a 2009 speech by former National Education Association top lawyer Bob Chanin.
It claims Chanin’s words illustrate why the union has spent more than $1 million to defeat a series of new education laws promoted by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna.
In the excerpt, Chanin says, “It is not because of the merit of our positions. It is not because we care about children. And it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child. It’s because we have power.”
The reference to union power underpins the overhaul proponents’ message that out-of-state labor organizations are working to kill Luna’s changes — not to help students but because unions fear an erosion of their clout.
But Chanin’s retirement speech, to union members in San Diego, predated Luna’s 2011 “Students Come First” plan by two years.
What’s more, the Chanin speech sought to explain why conservative groups oppose the NEA and didn’t address education overhaul proposals in Idaho or any other state.
Brian Cronin, a state Democratic lawmaker and strategist leading the anti-overhaul effort, says labor groups are being vilified in hopes of distracting potential voters.
“They’re desperately trying to divert attention from the real issues,” Cronin said. “The laws are not popular.”
The education overhaul, passed by the 2011 Idaho Legislature, seeks to limit union bargaining power, promote teacher merit pay and require online classes and student laptop computers.
Ken Burgess, with the political action committee Yes for Idaho Education that paid for the ads, stuck by the message.
While Chanin’s words may have preceded the 2011 Legislature where Luna’s overhaul passed, Burgess said they illustrate a fundamental divide in the debate over U.S. education: Conservatives who want changes, and unions who oppose efforts to alter the status quo.
“It’s the national union, essentially fighting against reform,” Burgess said. “I think Idahoans need to understand who’s really behind the opposition.”
The ad is running on TV in southern Idaho, and is in heavy circulation on the radio statewide.
It is an example of how proponents of Luna’s overhaul are attempting to simplify their message in a “right-to-work” state where voters have rejected union membership as a condition of employment, said Jasper LiCalzi, a professor of political economy at the College of Idaho in Caldwell.
“You’ve got 30 seconds on there, so you don’t have enough time to explain the details,” LiCalzi said. “You have to make it quick and easy, so for the ‘yes’ side, it’s about union power.”
Chanin’s speech has been a popular vehicle for conservative groups to target unions in the past, too.
In 2011, portions of his speech also appeared in national political advertisements financed by a group led by Karl Rove, a former staffer for Republican President George W. Bush’s administration, to link Democrats with labor groups.
At the time, the excerpts were also the topic of critical media reports, including by the Web-based news organization Talking Points Memo, contending his remarks were taken out of context.
In his speech, Chanin actually addresses why he believes the National Education Association will continue to be attacked by “conservative and right-wing groups.”
In a more-complete excerpt, Chanin says this: That the NEA will remain a target “as long as we continue to be effective advocates for public education, for education employees, and for human and civil rights. And that brings me to my final and most important point, which is why, at least in my opinion, NEA and its affiliates are such effective advocates.
“Despite what some among us would like to believe, it is not because of our creative ideas. It is not because of the merit of our positions. It is not because we care about children. And it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child.
“NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power. And we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year because they believe that we are the unions that can most effectively represent them, the unions that can protect their rights and advance their interests as education employees.”