James O’Keefe Trains His Slimy Lens on Teachers

The man who posed as a pimp to attack ACORN says teachers are racists.

By Julianne Hing Nov 16, 2010

Right-wing stunt man James O’Keefe is at it again, ready to take down those who truly "threaten" America. Before it was ACORN, then the largest national group organizing poor and working class people. This week it’s New Jersey school teachers.

O’Keefe sent a team to a New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) meeting last August and recorded educators, after hours, hanging out in the hotel lobby and talking about the profession. He called the video "Teachers After Hours," a supposedly salacious mash-up of teachers behaving badly.

The video purports to catch teachers playing video games and boasting about their credentials–a masters degree will allow one man to become a principal one day. One teacher, Alissa Ploshnick, recounts the story of another teacher who was demoted for calling a student the n-word, and also says it’s difficult to fire teachers after they’ve gained tenure. Ploshnick says after a teacher has received tenure, "like you seriously have to be in the hallway fucking somebody," to get fired. The video also has audio, but no images, of people ridiculing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

What strikes me about the video is its utter banality. Aside from the relative ease with which Ploshnick, a white woman, throws around those racial slurs, the video is filled with blurry visuals and choppy audio of teachers talking about the perks of teaching. They amount to: access to video games and other "free shit" at work conferences. The video is incendiary, but even if all of the statements are fabricated they’re still largely true. School districts must go through a long process to terminate a teacher who’s gained tenure. 

What’s perhaps most notable is that O’Keefe, once again, found a way to racialize his hit job. He previously orchestrated a visit to ACORN offices in which he and a white woman posed as a pimp and a prostitute and tried to get ACORN workers to help them falsify financial documents. The ACORN workers were eventually cleared, but the episode helped dismantle the organization completely. O’Keefe was also arrested for trying to pose as a telephone repair worker to get into Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu’s offices to tamper with her phones.

O’Keefe is not a "muckraker" so much as he is a shit-starter. The NJEA has said that Ploshnick regrets her comments, but that where the rest of the video is concerned, "It’s James O’Keefe and that’s all you need to know," said NJEA spokesman Steve Baker. The NJEA said O’Keefe is "completely and utterly discredited" and that the audio and visuals had been misleadingly chopped up.

Since the video went public, Ploshnick was suspended for nine days and docked a pay raise. Ploshnick said her comments have been taken out of context.

"I think it’s so unfair that I should be in the middle of this,” Ploshnick told New Jersey’s Star-Ledger. "I’m not the monster I’ve been made out to be.”

NJEA spokesperson Steve Wollmer said the person who recorded Ploshnick plied her with alcohol and an invitation to dinner while secretly recording their conversation. "He was offering her both romance and a glass of wine to get her to open up," Wollmer told the NJ Star-Ledger. "The guy’s flat-out sleazy." Media Matters has kept track of the ways O’Keefe has used slimy tactics to target women and then try to embarrass them in the past.

But it seems like O’Keefe may have picked on the wrong target, again. Alissa Ploshnick, a special education teacher, was honored by President Bill Clinton in 1997 for throwing herself in front of a moving van to save her students.

Meanwhile, New Jersey’s pro-reform and anti-union Gov. Chris Christie has used the video as a rallying point to further attack the teachers union. 

"If you need an example of what I’ve been talking about for the last nine months — about how the teacher’s union leadership is out of touch with the people and out of control — go watch this video," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said, the New Jersey Star-Ledger reported. 

Theirs is a famously antagonistic relationship. Christie recently told a classroom of New Jersey students that the reason they didn’t have the school supplies they needed was because of greedy teachers unions.

Teachers unions are by no mean faultless; they’re institutions of power with deep pockets that they often use to further teacher benefits that are not always in the best interests of students. But just because it’s difficult to fire teachers does not mean that teachers alone are the only culprits in failing schools, nor does it mean that teachers hold all the cards in the education system.

Attacking teachers unions only gets school reformers so far, as the Obama administration is slowly learning. Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has changed his tone of his public remarks this year. He’s softened his criticisms of teachers unions and tried to tell folks that every entity–parents, administrators, policymakers and politicians–will have to compromise to better U.S. schools.

Videos like these serve no one. They’re uninformative and reductive; the role of teachers unions in the education reform movement is complicated, and for the uninformed, the video is a dangerous over-simplification of the debate. O’Keefe’s shady videos are an insult to anyone genuinely interested in bettering schools.