Democrats and Teachers Unions: The Chasm Grows

As more Dems demand education reform, the teachers unions find themselves increasingly isolated.

Going back to 2009, I have written many times about the relationship between the teachers unions and the Democratic Party. It’s no secret that the party and the unions were at one time synonymous, but this is rapidly becoming history. Quite clearly, no entity is more aware of this than the National Education Association. In its year-end “Best and Worst Players in Public Education,” the usual right-of-center bogeymen – the Koch brothers and new villainess Campbell Brown – are of course trotted out.

But also prominently bashed is the Democrats for Education Reform, which advocates for sensible education policy changes. But according to NEA, the reforms suggested by DFER (and many other groups) have “acquired a bit of a stench over the last few years, as the ideas with which it is most closely associated – high stakes accountability, vouchers, merit pay, charter schools, not to mention teacher bashing – have not worn well with much of the public.” (Actually, polls show that the general public is now at odds with teachers unions, not the reformers.) Not surprisingly, NEA agrees with the union-owned California Democratic Party, which passed a resolution in 2013 calling on DFER to cease using ‘Democrats’ in their name, claiming their program “is clearly a front for a right-wing corporate agenda.” In other words, you are branded a right-wing crazy if you believe in things like school choice, holding schools accountable and empowering reform-minded mayors.

Apparently Andrew Cuomo is also one who should relinquish his Democratic credentials. Just last week, the governor of New York sent the state’s top education officials a letter warning that he plans to use his influence over the budget by pursuing an aggressive legislative agenda to fix an ailing school system hobbled by bureaucracy. The Wall Street Journal’s Leslie Brody writes,

The fact that only about one third of students are proficient on state tests in math and language arts was ‘simply unacceptable,’ the letter said.

It challenged Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and outgoing Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. to answer questions about whether to lift the cap on charter schools, how to make it easier to remove ineffective teachers and how to make teacher evaluations more stringent, among other issues.

Part of Cuomo’s frustration is that 95.6 percent of  teachers in New York were rated “effective” or “highly effective” during the 2013-14 academic year despite less than 40 percent of grade 3-8 students being assessed “proficient” on their standardized tests the same year. Additionally, 3.7 percent of teachers in the state were deemed “developing” and just 0.7 percent were rated “ineffective,” according to the data. So 60 percent of the kids are failing, but less than 1 percent of the teachers are.

Union leaders would have you think that Cuomo had just committed an act of heresy – which, of course, he did. United Federation of Teachers president Michael “I’m going to punch you in the face” Mulgrew said, “This letter comes right out of the playbook of the hedge funders for whom education ‘reform’ has become a pet cause and who poured money into the Cuomo re-election campaign.”

Karen Magee, president of the New York State United Teachers, also admonished Cuomo, suggesting that he should rely on advice from the “real experts—parents, educators and students—about what’s best for public education. Instead, New Yorkers get clueless, incendiary questions that do the bidding of New York City hedge fund billionaires who have letterhead and campaign donations, but know absolutely nothing about how public education works.” (If the teachers unions would become as obsessed with kids getting a good education as they are with hedgies, this country would be a much better place.)

Not easily cowed, Cuomo and his people fired back. Jim Malatras, the governor’s operations director, took a shot at the union, writing: “The education bureaucracy’s mission is to sustain the bureaucracy and the status quo and therefore it is often the enemy of change.”

And no one knows more about teacher union rigidity than former New York City school chancellor (and Democrat) Joel Klein. In a piece he wrote for The Atlantic, Klein explains that early in his stint as school chief, he decided to reach out to individual teachers in writing and in person.

My hope was that, as I invited teachers to group gatherings, brown-bag lunches, or meetings in schools, we would get to know one another as human beings. (I confess, I hoped some would say to themselves, ‘Hey, that Klein’s not the jerk I thought he was.’) Since it was physically impossible for me to meet 80,000 teachers face-to- face, I decided that, in addition to lots of small meetings, I’d write e-mails to them all as a group. What was to stop me? After all, I was their boss. Shouldn’t we be able to communicate? (Emphasis added.)

Well, actually, no. Because the United Federation of Teachers wouldn’t allow it. Klein was not permitted to “approach teachers directly on any matter that touched on their actual work. There would be no brown-bag lunches shared in the teachers’ lounge or coffee and conversation without union supervision. These matters were all subject to collective bargaining and, therefore, I was informed (first by the union and then by my own attorney) that I couldn’t discuss them directly with the teachers.” (Emphasis added.)

As more and more Democrats come to see that the teachers unions, with their rigid work rules and insistence on preserving the failing status quo, are the biggest impediment to education reform, the unions can either become more conciliatory or they can double down. You can bet your hedge fund holdings it will be the latter. Their money and power will still get some of their people elected, as it did California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. But eventually their unwavering course will turn a political chasm into a sprawling lonely gulf inhabited only by shrill and flailing unionistas. And as DFER, Andrew Cuomo and Joel Klein can attest, the sooner that happens the better.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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