Thursday’s Boston Herald story by Dan Atkinson and Kathleen McKiernan, Poll: Don’t give raises to Boston’s unwanted teachers combines two of my nagging concerns about politics: dark money, and the misuse of polls. But though the story says that Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts “released” the poll, there is no link to the poll and I can’t find it on DFER’s website. It’s a mystery claim from a mystery organization.
In this case, the dark money front DFER MA purportedly has a poll that shows that almost half of Boston residents do not want teachers in the city’s “excess pool” to receive a pay raise. But unless DFER MA releases the entire poll including methodology, citizens have no idea if the claimed results are reliable. (Except we have DFER’s word on it; we’ll get to that).
How were the questions worded? The story describes the teachers as being in the “excess pool’ — educators who lost their positions because of poor performance or job cuts, or who principals don’t want to hire — now working as co-teachers or in other positions.” But did the question ask if respondents favored “unwanted teachers” to get paid? Or did they favor teachers in the “excess pool” to get paid? Or something else? You’d likely get different responses based on the wording. And the question would need to explain what those terms meant. The “unwanted teachers” are working after all, and what if they aren’t wanted because of inept or misguided administrators? That’s why they have a union to protect them in the first place.
The School Committee is set to vote on a contract negotiated between the city and the Boston Teachers Union in which all teachers including those in the excess pool would get a raise. DFER MA State Director Liam Kerr says that voters “When presented with the facts” don’t want the excess pool teachers to get the raise. But voters weren’t presented with these facts because the contract was just finalized and the poll was conducted in May. And to go back to the nature of the questions asked, “the facts” presented were selected by DFER MA.
Which leads to a larger problem: as Neil Postman argued years ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death, poll respondents often have a limited understanding of the topic being presented to them. From the depths of my ignorance of the topic of the excess pool, I’ll confess I don’t understand the nuances of the issue or the practical application.
That leads us back to taking DFER MA’s word on this. What (or Who)? Is DFER? We don’t know, because it is a dark money front that hides its contributors. Sure the organization is represented in Massachusetts by Mr. Kerr, but he’s an agent. Who are the principals? In other words, show me the money. Who is putting up the money for the political activities of DFER MA? Maybe they are selfless do-gooders too shy to make their names know. But until DFER Ma comes clean about who really controls its political operations (hint: it is hedge fund money, probably from New York), there is every reason to regard their pronouncements with deep skepticism.
Bottom line: a secret poll from a furtive dark money front. Proceed with caution.
The Washington Post recently adopted a new slogan: “Democracy dies in darkness.” I agree.
[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money (and other things). I don't write about education policy.]