Political reporters and commentators have been shocked – shocked! – by calls by the Big Two teachers unions for Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s resignation.
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To some degree, this is understandable. After all, the two unions have never called for the head of a top Democratic federal official, much less the nation’s top official for education policy.
Yet for those have been paying close attention, the National Education and American Federation of Teachers’s demands for his resignation is just another sign that teachers unions can no longer count on the Democratic Party for unquestioned support.
More importantly, the public calls for Duncan’s head show just how far the once-mighty unions have fallen.
What led to the NEA’s and AFT’s latest desperate move was last month’s California Superior Court decision in Vergara v. California, which struck down near-lifetime employment for public school teachers. The unions were especially annoyed after Duncan issued a statement last praising the ruling as an opportunity to “build a new framework” for teacher employment that “protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities”.
AFT President Randi Weingarten, in particular, expected Duncan to back down after she wrote a letter chastising him for adding to the “polarization” of debates over education policy. To her dismay, Duncan doubled down on his initial comments, declaring that teachers that near-lifetime employment and other policies defended by teachers unions “undercut the public’s confidence in public education.”
With Duncan unwilling to back away from his remarks – and the Obama Administration clearly backing him – the NEA and AFT took the only step they could: passing resolutions at their conventions calling for Duncan to step down.
Even that didn’t exactly get the response they wanted. When informed by the press about the NEA’s demand, Duncan brushed it off, saying, “I always try to stay out of local union politics” and that “I think most teachers do, too,”
The NEA’s and AFT’s calls for Duncan’s resignation captured the attention of reporters such as Motoko Rich of the New York Times, who called it a “watershed between the Democratic Party and teachers’ unions.”
But this isn’t so. Over the past five years, the Obama Administration – along with centrist Democrats who are in the vanguard of the nation’s school reform movement – has shown its willingness to ignore NEA and AFT concerns.
Through competitive grant initiatives such as Race to the Top, the Obama Administration has supported efforts by states to increase the number of charter schools – the privately-operated public schools that are the most-popular form of school choice – and subject teachers to private sector-style performance management.
For the NEA and AFT, the Obama Administration’s strong support for school reform has been particularly rankling because it has contributed to their losses on the political front. Once able to beat back reform efforts by simply cashing in on favors they have done for Democratic (and occasionally, Republican) politicians, the two unions have found themselves battling against a bipartisan coalition that really wants to fix public schools.
Among the key players in the school reform movement are big-city mayors, young urbanites, blue state governors, and black families. These key constituencies within the Democratic Party have realized that overhauling public education is critical to fighting poverty and improving communities. This has meant taking on the NEA and AFT, also huge players in the Democratic Party.
Scuffles between Democrats and teachers unions came in the 1990s, when then-President Bill Clinton successfully pushed for federal funding for charters and support for the development of state testing regimes through a reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
By 2001, congressional and Senate Democrats led by George Miller and Ted Kennedy would team up with George W. Bush and future House Speaker John Boehner to pass the No Child Left Behind Act.
By 2008, the NEA and AFT would suffer another loss when it backed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination instead of eventual winner Obama. Owing nothing to two unions, Obama chose Duncan, who led the school reform effort undertaken in Chicago by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, and furthered the efforts of Clinton and Bush.
As a result of the administration’s efforts, along with those of governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, the NEA’s and AFT’s political muscle has been weakened. Which is why the two unions called for Duncan’s ouster.
Having lost much of their influence within the Democratic Party, the NEA and AFT have decided to go for broke. They want to force the Obama Administration’s hand and to warn Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee for president in 2016, that they will no longer allow any deviation from the party line.
Yet, in calling for Duncan’s head, the NEA and AFT have actually given the Obama Administration an even freer hand to pursue the reforms it has been championing.
As noted earlier in Dropout Nation, the Obama Administration, knowing that nothing it does will find favor with the two unions, can issue executive orders and administrative guidance that will further weaken the two unions. The Obama Administration has already shown this year that it will push its agenda to legally possible limits when it so chooses.
At the same time, the NEA and AFT have also given Democrat reformers plenty of reasons to push hard for future nominees – especially Clinton – to take an even harder line against the two unions.
Some Democrats are already calling for progressives and others to support efforts to end the ability of public-sector unions to force civil servants to pay into their coffers. Given Clinton’s relatively strong base, along with her track record of backing her husband’s school reform efforts in Arkansas and at the national level, she may not be receptive at all to being bullied by the two unions.
Meanwhile the two unions find themselves backing the very Democrat reformers they oppose. Last month, the AFT’s Connecticut affiliate joined with the state unit of the AFL-CIO to endorse Gov. Dan Malloy, who successfully passed a school reform bill two years ago.
Because the NEA and AFT have weak ties to Republicans, they have little choice but to seek solace with Democrats, who, in turn, have also learned that they are the tail that wags the teachers unions’ dog.
So long as the teachers unions can count on their vast coffers, and the disinterest of suburban districts in anything other than modest reforms, the unions will still enjoy some clout. But as Duncan has shown, the NEA and AFT sure aren’t what they once were and it only gets worse from here.