Article published in The Detroit Free Press
At the National Education Association’s recent annual meeting, Barack Obama threw down the gauntlet before 9,000 members, challenging them to embrace competition and merit pay. In doing so, he exposed the NEA for what it truly is — a political organization.
“If you excel at helping your students achieve success, your success will be valued and rewarded as well. . . . That’s how we’re going to close the achievement gap that exists in this country and that’s how we’re going to start treating teachers like the professionals you are.”
Not surprisingly, Sen. Obama’s remark caused a great deal of controversy. The NEA has continually fought tooth-and-nail against merit pay. In its legislative guide for Congress, for instance, the NEA is on record opposing “any initiatives that mandate or promote traditionally defined merit pay schemes or other pay-for-performance systems.”
Shortly after Sen. Obama offered the idea, New Jersey Education Association President Joyce Powell eviscerated the presidential candidate, stating, “I can’t imagine if he were informed he would come before 10,000 people and say what he said.”
Rewarding teachers with pay increases when their students show impressive gains on standardized tests is an approach that is beginning to catch on in public schools around the nation. But what makes sense to forward-thinking policymakers doesn’t necessarily appeal to union bosses. The big question is whether the NEA is ruled by the same principles.
Study after study has demonstrated that nothing helps students learn better than a first-rate teacher. Yet in the nation’s inner-city schools, the best teachers often leave for better salaries, nicer neighborhoods, and less-stressful work.
Across the country, 40 percent of all teachers leave the classroom within their first five years on the job — often because they don’t stand to earn the same performance-based pay raises that are earned by their private sector counterparts.
The NEA’s opposition to proven reforms doesn’t end with merit pay.
Despite indisputable evidence that school-choice systems boost student achievement in both public and private schools, regardless of socioeconomic background, the NEA regularly stands against such efforts. This despite the fact that vouchers and other forms of school choice allow students who are trapped in underperforming schools the opportunity to transfer somewhere better.
The benefits of market-based solutions in public education seem to end there for Senator Obama, who has repeatedly opposed school choice. But the extreme political agenda of the NEA’s current leadership goes beyond opposing vouchers and merit pay for teachers.
For evidence, look no further than the recent convention, where delegates approved proposals to use NEA “resources to pursue implementation of . . . a universal single-payer health system” and to “support efforts to implement an exit strategy to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq.”
Delegates also drew up the NEA’s annual list of resolutions — which included a demand for a verifiable nuclear freeze, an appeal for higher cigarette taxes, and a call for America to recognize and support the International Criminal Court.
Regardless of where one stands on these issues, one thing is clear: They are political in nature and have absolutely nothing to do with education. Last year alone, the union spent nearly $27 million on “political activities and lobbying.”
By using union resources to advocate politics, the NEA is squandering the money of America’s hardworking teachers. Most of the union’s money comes through dues, which it automatically deducts from the paychecks of its 3.2 million members.
Meanwhile, the NEA stands firmly opposed to proven educational reforms – disregarding the goals of its members and public education in general.
Sen. Obama deserves credit for not mincing words at the NEA conference. The NEA is, after all, the nation’s largest labor union. And with an annual budget of nearly $350 million, it wields enormous political influence.
That’s why seven of the eight Democratic presidential candidates — and even one Republican — visited this year’s conference. An NEA endorsement is priceless.
For policymakers who are serious about wanting to improve American public education, their commitment to ideas that work — like school choice and merit pay — will be vital to any future success they may have. And for teachers and others who care about improving schools, that commitment should count for far more than their desire to pander to the heads of the big national teacher unions.
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