When they look back on the Obama years, the national teacher unions may reflect in Dickensian manner that “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. . . .”
It was the best of times because the teacher unions in a sense had gotten what they paid for with the more than 95 percent of their political war chests that annually goes to Democratic candidates, most of them liberal. In Barack Obama, they got a President whom both friend and foe identify as distinctly left of political center.
The explosion of federal spending on education at all levels, complete with a doubling of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget, certainly suggested great times for the national unions, which long have lobbied for this federal largesse.
It was also the best of times because the new President has sided (so far) with the unions in supporting the congressional Democratic leadership’s bid to kill school-choice vouchers for low-income District of Columbia kids – despite solid evidence that this five-year-old pilot project with broad community support has helped the kids achieve at improved levels.
Nonetheless, it was the worst of times for the NEA and AFT in that the Obama Administration and its friends in the liberal media were defying union orthodoxy on a surprisingly large number of core issues regarding how teachers are hired, placed, evaluated, and rewarded.
It infuriates the NEA and AFT leaders that President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are pressing states to lift their caps on independently managed charter schools (which often hire non-union teachers), so that more of them can step in and rescue children from failing schools. After all, the unions have spent much money and time pressuring state legislatures to maintain those nonsensical lids on innovation.
Just as odious, from the union view, is the Administration’s support of value-added assessment to identify real growth in student achievement scores and then to use the data to separate good teachers from bad. The Administration is pressing several big states to repeal provisions prized by the teacher unions that flatly bar the use of student achievement data in evaluating teacher and principal performance. Again, those are rules the unions bought and paid for, in order to keep schools safe for mediocrity.
“It looks like the only strategies they [the Obama Administration] have are charter schools and measurement,” AFT president Randi Weingarten huffed to The Washington Post of Sept. 25. “That’s Bush III.”
Actually, Obama is going way beyond Bush I and Bush II in requiring states to adopt education reforms favored in Washington. No Child Left Behind, adopted under George W. Bush with the backing of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, required states to test kids annually, but let the states pick the tests. Obama is requiring states to take a whole range of specific actions if they want to share in the $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTTT) incentive fund carved out of the stimulus package.
The NEA’s comments in reaction to proposed RTTT rules published in July are so acerbic as to be amusing. “We find this top-down approach disturbing. . . we cannot support yet another layer of federal mandates that have little or no research base of success and that usurp state and local government’s responsibilities for public education…the Administration has chosen the path of a series of top-down directives that may discourage rather than encourage productive innovation…”
A Tenth Amendment conservative might find the NEA’s embrace of Jeffersonian principles of limited government to be heartening, if only the NEA body of work since the 1970s did not expose the hypocrisy of its protestations. The NEA has consistently supported greatly increased federal funding and control of education, while relentlessly resisting requirements that schools show academic results in exchange for the tax money. The U.S. Department of Education itself was the product of a promise Jimmy Carter made to gain the NEA’s support of his presidential candidacy.
These could still turn out to be the best of times for the teacher unions if the NEA and AFT and their allies in Congress convince Obama to bend reform to their liking. For instance, the President’s support of increased accountability for charter schools could mean cutting parents out of the equation and putting bureaucrats and unions in charge. But for now, the union bosses are mired in Dickensian misery.
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