Teachers unions turn on Obama

Getty Images

Teachers unions have turned on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration, creating a major divide in the Democratic Party coalition.

ADVERTISEMENT
The largest teachers union in the country, the National Education Association (NEA), called for Duncan to resign at its convention on July 4, arguing his policies on testing have failed the nation’s schools.

Tensions between Duncan and the unions had been building for some time.

The administration’s Race to the Top program, which has provided $4.35 billion to states, incentivized changes that unions strongly oppose. One of the most controversial policies backed by Duncan is using students’ improvement on standardized tests to help evaluate teachers and make pay and tenure decisions.

“Our members are frustrated and angry,” said NEA president Dennis Van Roekel. “Number one is the toxic testing. There is too much.”

An added spark came on June 10, when a California judge ruled the state’s teacher tenure laws are unconstitutional because they keep ineffective teachers in the classroom and deprive poor and minority students of their right to an equal education.

Teachers unions, which are strong defenders of tenure, expressed outrage when Duncan said the plaintiffs in the case were just some of millions of students disadvantaged by tenure laws. He called the decision “a mandate to fix these problems.”

With the teachers unions at loggerheads with the administration, Democrats are suddenly at risk of losing one of their most reliable allies and fundraising sources.

“[The California decision] caused some friction between the civil rights wing of the party and the more traditional labor wing of the party,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. 

Williams said Duncan and President Obama have diminished the unions’ historical dominance over the party’s platform for education. “They were the first elected Democrats at that high a level to connect directly with Democratic constituents rather than just the teachers unions,” he said.

Teachers unions traditionally have been generous donors to Democratic campaigns over the years, and that trend has carried into 2014. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, teachers unions have contributed about $9 million to candidates and $7 million in outside spending in the 2014 cycle, almost all for Democrats, and in line with 2010 levels.

But there’s no guarantee that the flow of campaign cash will continue.

Some of teachers unions’ fiercest sparring partners are now Democrats. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, clashed with unions during a teachers strike in 2012. Staunchly liberal New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has fought with Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo over charter schools, an education alternative that the Obama administration has encouraged.

Back in 2009, Obama’s choice of Duncan, a former Chicago superintendent, for secretary was seen as a compromise between a close ally of the teachers unions or a reformer such as former Washington superintendent Michelle Rhee.

But Duncan’s state competitions for funding have led to significant steps towards the reform vision, and away from the positions of teachers unions.

Rhee praises the work Duncan and Obama have done.

“I think they have done some incredibly aggressive things on the education reform front,” she said in an interview. “You are seeing a new day in the Democratic Party.”

According to a report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, at the beginning of the administration, in 2009, no states had clear policies that ineffective teaching was grounds for dismissal. By 2013, 29 states did. Twenty states require student growth to be the main factor in teacher evaluations, up from just four states in 2009.

During much of the administration, the changes progressed with little fanfare. Duncan is one of Obama’s closest friends in the Cabinet, long a fixture of the president’s pick-up basketball games, and has managed to avoid major controversies.

But with the ire of the teachers unions building, some of the glare of the spotlight is now on Duncan. He faced tough questions from the White House press corps when he appeared at the briefing on Monday.

Duncan declined to address the NEA’s call for his resignation, telling reporters, “I try and stay out of local union politics.”

He emphasized that he is not against teacher tenure, but thinks there should be a higher bar for receiving it, based on “demonstrating effectiveness.”

Further clouding the education picture is the brewing discontent on the conservative side of the political spectrum against the Common Core standards for what students should know by the end of each grade. 

The standards were not written by the Obama administration, though Duncan has encouraged their adoption.

The standards have become anathema to the right, and GOP governors who are potential presidential contenders, such as Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, Mike Pence in Indiana and Nikki Haley in South Carolina, are in various stages of dropping them.

Teachers unions are not happy either. They support the standards, but have called their implementation rushed and too focused on tests. The American Federation of Teachers is now considering advocating changes and even outright opposition to Common Core.

Duncan appeared on “CBS This Morning” last month to defend the standards against the left and the right. Asked about Jindal’s critique, in particular, Duncan hit back.

“It’s about politics,” he said. “It’s not about education.”

More in Administration

Obama turns to rebounding economy to cement legacy

Read more »