National Teachers Unions Intensify War on Reformers

NEA and AFT ramp up attacks on non-existent teacher bashers, while vilifying those who are trying to reform a failing system.

In her address last week at the American Federation of Teachers TEACH conference, AFT President Randi Weingarten came out swinging. In an emotional speech to the faithful, she said that education reform should come from teachers and their communities, rather than from people “who blame teachers for everything.” While the teachers unions have been hammering away at this “blame the teacher” myth for some time now, the rants seem to be intensifying.

Invariably, what is labeled “teacher bashing” is nothing more than anger at the teachers unions for blocking every type of education reform imaginable, as well as the unions doing their level best to block school districts’ attempts to fire bad and even criminal teachers. So to be more specific, these phenomena should be called “teacher union bashing” and “bad teacher bashing.”

Education writer RiShawn Biddle does an excellent job of poking holes in the teacher bashing argument, claiming, among other things, that Weingarten “is just using a rhetorical trick often deployed by teachers unions and other education traditionalists to oppose school reform. They declare that any criticism of the unions and any effort to overhaul teacher quality are forms of ‘teacher bashing.’ And such proclamations end up forcing reformers onto their heels when they should actually take these critics to the woodshed.”

“Reformophobia” was also an important component at the yearly National Education Association convention that wrapped up a couple of weeks ago. At the NEA confab, we heard the same petulant tone from teachers who came from all over the country and convened as part of the Representative Assembly. One of the RA’s responsibilities is to propose New Business Items, which are messages of concern from the hoi-polloi to the NEA aristocracy. This year’s NBIs dealt heavily with the education reform issues that the union crowd is clearly (and understandably) most threatened by.

For example, NBI 33 says,” NEA will establish and articulate a position against the privatization of the American public school system.” (In other words, we are threatened by any kind of school choice system and will fight to the death to prevent this from happening on a grand scale.)

NBI 37 says, “NEA will investigate and inform its members about the anti-public education agenda behind the ill-informed intrusion of billionaires on education.” (Be careful, Bill Gates, you are not welcome into the world we now control.)

NBI 76 says, “NEA will facilitate access to empirical research and reviewed and/or valid studies, for member use, on the NEA website to assist members in combating the concerted attacks on public education and public educators.” (Our butts are getting kicked by the reformers and we need to find some snappy rejoinders to counter their attacks.)

NBI 80 says, “The NEA Representative Assembly directs the NEA President to denounce blatant age discrimination occurring across the United States, as veteran educators are targeted for dismissal by school superintendents and administrators who, under the guise of “improvement plans”, often subject these educators to harassment-style management. The President may point out that all school employees over the age of 40 are protected under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and stress the countless contributions made to public education by veteran teachers.” (Don’t mess with our seniority system because we will attack you as “ageist” and use a federal law to stop you if necessary.)

But perhaps the most vitriolic of the NBIs was the one attacking reform-minded Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. New Business Item C starts with, “The NEA Representative Assembly directs the NEA President to communicate aggressively, forcefully, and immediately to President Barack Obama and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that NEA is appalled with Secretary Duncan’s practice of….” and goes on to list “let-me-count-the-ways-we-hate-you” items – 13 in all. Interestingly though, Duncan’s boss Barack Obama not only got by unscathed but was given the NEA presidential endorsement for 2012. The message to Obama would seem to be, “We have to tolerate you because we’d rather die than support a Republican. Now please show us some love and pay us back by canning that creep Duncan.”)

Interestingly, there was one out-of-character measure taken by the NEA. According to Mike Antonucci, the union “is no longer opposed to the use of merit pay or performance pay compensation systems.”

While this would appear to be a tectonic shift, it in all likelihood is not. As Antonucci points out, “Categorical opposition to something on the fringe of education policy is practical, but as such things become more mainstream over time, this becomes less and less feasible and costs the union in public credibility. NEA’s solution is to stop saying, ‘No, you can’t,’ and start saying, ‘Well, you can, as long as you can pass through the eye of the needle.’”

In other words, NEA is saying, “You see. We are really not obstructionists.” But course, when it comes time to nail down specifics, the union will do what it always does – aggressively block anything approaching meaningful reform. Yes, the devil is in the details. And the devil will do everything in its power to ensure that the details don’t do anything at all to disturb the moribund status quo.

About the author: Larry Sand is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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