damage control

Facing outcry from educators, Kenneth Cole to remove billboard

The Kenneth Cole billboard is visible from the West Side Highway, near 125th Street.

Hundreds of angry educators from across the country seem to have taught the clothing retailer Kenneth Cole a lesson about diction—and union politics.

Late last week we broke the news about a company billboard that invoked a loaded education policy issue using a slogan many teachers viewed as an attack on their profession.

This weekend teachers and advocates responded, in a flurry of posts on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, and a petition 600 signatures strong, calling for a boycott of Cole’s clothing company. Even national union leader Randi Weingarten waded into the fray with Twitter posts criticizing the company, which is headed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s brother-in-law.

The company has now responded. This afternoon, Kenneth Cole Productions used Twitter to send a public message to the creator of the petition, a D.C. teacher-turned-activist, Sabrina Stevens Shupe, that it plans to remove the billboard.

“We misrepresented the issue – one too complex for a billboard – and are taking it down,” the company posted from its Twitter account, @KennethCole.

This weekend, the company posted a different Twitter message clarifying that the ad campaign’s “Intent is to stimulate debate, not pit teachers against students.” The message now appears to have been deleted. The company has not responded to a request for comment today.

But some teachers and advocates say the opposite message came off in the billboard, which reads, “Teachers’ Rights vs. Students’ Rights…” and directs viewers to a website that asks, “Should underperforming teachers be protected?”

“Teachers and students both deserve respect; however, they both have different roles in education. And they are not opponents,” wrote Joann Mickens, an education advocate in Mississippi, on the petition website.

Dozens of advocates joined the call for a boycott of the company, called Kenneth Cole Productions, writing about it on Twitter with the hashtag #boycottkennethcole.

“Don’t pit teachers against students,” Weingarten tweeted, “and Take down your hurtful ad, Kenneth Cole!”

A Queens high school teacher said the billboard’s effect was to “trash” the teaching profession. “Our fondest wish for children in our care is that they grow up,” the teacher wrote in a blog post. “[Kenneth Cole Productions is] hardly doing anyone any favors.”

A GothamSchools commenter posted a letter the commenter sent to the company.

“I have long bought Kenneth Cole products because of the quality and style you offer, and I have also liked that your company does take public stands on important social issues, but this campaign is something I would not have expected your company to be involved in,” the commenter said. “Unfortunately, you have lost a long-time, loyal customer with this ad campaign.”

Boycotts are often ineffective at cutting into a company’s revenues, but can still put pressure on one to change its practices or political messages, according to Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who has researched the effects of boycotts. He said the boycott could damage the company’s reputation, if the billboard’s perceived message really was unintended.

“If the message is not clear, or confusing, or doesn’t resonate with its core audience, then it could backfire and create problems for its reputation in the future,” King said.

Salon.com writer suggested that, in tying its brand identity to the political “movement du jour,” the Kenneth Cole campaign is part of a trend of “elite” companies wading into education reform debates.

New York City’s United Federation of Teachers offered a tongue-in-cheek response that reflected the loaded political implications of the ad’s language.

“We can only hope that the company’s fashion sense is more sophisticated than its treatment of complicated educational and political issues,” a spokesman said in a statement.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”