Beleaguered Teachers Unions Still Exert Influence on Democrats Where it Matters



CHARLOTTE–President Barack Obama has occasionally received high marks from impressionable non-liberals for (in the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks) "tak[ing] on a Democratic constituency, the teachers' unions," in the process becoming "the most determined education reformer in the modern presidency." The evidence for these claims usually comes in a triptych: The president occasionally talks tough about teacher performance, he appointed the decently reformist education secretary Arne Duncan, and together they pushed through the "Race to the Top" initiative that encourages states to embrace reforms.

As I wrote in March 2010, there are some other contextual considerations:

He [also] poured an unprecedented $100 billion into the education status quo via the stimulus package alone, ensuring the exact opposite of what Brooks claims: keeping failed teachers in failing schools. He signed into law the absolutely gratuitous euthanasia of Washington, D.C.'s school voucher program. He proposed jacking up the federal education budget another 6.2 percent this year even in a time of profound fiscal crisis, and the main reformist element of his approach–the Race to the Top initiative, which incentivizes states to embrace charter schools and more closely link teacher evaluation to student performance–amounts to less than 5 percent of the education stimulus money, and may have its biggest impact in railroading through a single national academic standard for K-12 schools.

There has been much talk about education at the Democratic National Convention, including by some of the Democratic politicians who have been most vocal about taking on teachers unions. Meanwhile, the National Education Association alone has a reported 350 delegates at the convention. So who is winning this skirmish in what Tim Cavanaugh has called the DNC's "Laborgeddon"? From the perspective of publicly enumerated policy, I'm calling it a rout: The beleaguered teachers unions have locked in the rhetorical and policy status quo.

Just look at the neutered way that Democratic reformers themselves have discussed education during the convention. In a nutshell, and contrary to some of their performances in office, the consensus has been that we just need to throw more money at the problem while greatly exaggerating the scope of "reform." No rubber rooms shall be harmed in the course of their remarks. Here's Newark Mayor Cory Booker:


[I]nvesting in people doesn't stop with our troops. Our platform and our president make it clear that the most critical investment we can make in a 21st-century, knowledge-based economy is education. Our president has already doubled Pell grants, raised education standards, invested in research and development at our universities and early childhood education in our neighborhoods. Our platform and our president state it clearly: our nation cannot continue to be the world's number one economy if we aren't committed to being the world's number one educator.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has locked horns with his local teachers unions, was fairly mute:

[T]he president worked to put accountability in our children's schools with "Race to the Top" so that every child has an education that measures up to their full potential. 

Note the clever (and knowing) deployment of "worked to." And here's Education Secretary Arne Duncan:

[The president] believes that teachers matter. In his first two years in office, he helped save the jobs of 400,000 educators.

And President Obama didn't just invest resources; he demanded reform. And 46 states responded by raising education standards. The president also believes teachers must be respected and paid like the professionals they are. No teacher should have to teach to the test. Great teachers should be recognized and rewarded.

Re: "demanded"—As Reason Foundation Director of Education Lisa Snell has put it, the combination of massive teacher bailouts and minor Race to the Top carrots (which are not to be confused with sticks) amount to "status quo 20, reform 1."

Caption contest!

The non-reformers speaking at the convention haven't even bothered paying lip service to the idea of changing the way public education dollars are spent. Former president Bill Clinton, in his highly entertaining speech last night, tossed off a one-liner typical of the genre:

We know that investments in education and infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase growth.  They increase good jobs, and they create new wealth for all the rest of us.

And Tuesday night keynoter Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio, probably best summed up this view:

We have to come together and invest in opportunity today for prosperity tomorrow. And it starts with education. […]

We know that you can't be pro-business unless you're pro-education. We know that pre-K and student loans aren't charity. They're a smart investment in a workforce that can fill and create the jobs of tomorrow. We're investing in our young minds today to be competitive in the global economy tomorrow.

The Democratic Party Platform crows that the "Recovery Act represented the largest education investment since President Johnson," and included this revealing non-sequitur: "Because there is no substitute for a great teacher at the head of a classroom, the President helped school districts save more than 400,000 educator jobs." More tortured language from the party's statement of values:

We Democrats honor our nation's teachers, who do a heroic job for their students every day. If we want high-quality education for all our kids, we must listen to the people who are on the front lines. The President has laid out a plan to prevent more teacher layoffs while attracting and rewarding great teachers. This includes raising standards for the programs that prepare our teachers, recognizing and rewarding good teaching, and retaining good teachers. We also believe in carefully crafted evaluation systems that give struggling teachers a chance to succeed and protect due process if another teacher has to be put in the classroom.

How DARE you!

This walking-on-eggshells act extended outside the Time Warner Cable Arena. On Monday afternoon, at a theater a stone's throw away, a handful of teachers union activists celebrated Labor Day by protesting the screening of a new Maggie Gyllenhaal vehicle called Won't Back Down. The film's sin? Depicting teachers unions and administrators as the obstacles to improving poor public schools via the "parent trigger" and other items from the school-reform toolbox.

"Choice is a false thing," protester Pamela Grundy told Reason.tv. "There's no evidence that they'll get a better education for their children, and those parents are being manipulated by for-profit corporations….It doesn't serve the public good of having excellent educational opportunities available for everyone."

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, with typical charm and finesse, has accused Won't Back Down of "using the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen," resorting to "falsehoods and anti-union stereotypes," and "affixing blame on the wrong culprit: America's teachers unions." The film, Weingarten said, "contains several egregiously misleading scenes with the sole purpose of undermining people's confidence in public education, public school teachers and teachers unions."

But even funnier than watching labor get red-faced at Hollywood was the Democrats' delicate approach to allowing the film to be screened at all (an anguish that organizers of the Republican National Convention did not share). As The Huffington Post reported,

[U]nlike Tampa, where the promoters had little concern about making waves with the party establishment and had no trouble when they ran the idea past the Republican National Committee, the request for a Charlotte screening went to the highest levels of the Obama administration, which passed the decision off to the Democratic National Committee, according to a source with knowledge of the chain of events. According to this source, Valerie Jarrett, Obama's close personal adviser, and David Plouffe, his top political adviser, both saw the request but eventually handed the decision over to the DNC's political director, Patrick Gaspard, who raised no objections.

Bottom line: Those who seek to reform public education through competition and choice should not expect much from a second Obama/Biden term.

Learn more about "The Machine" from Reason.tv: