Education reform has been a key issue for the administration of President Barack Obama, and he made his commitment to improving education explicit by appointing an avowed reformer — Arne Duncan — to the post of Secretary of Education. However, this has also put him at odds with some of Democratic Party’s most reliable supporters and boosters: the teachers unions. In an election where voter enthusiasm and turnout numbers could be the difference between another four years in office and early retirement, can President Obama afford to alienate the people who are frequently the main campaign organizers in some of the most important states?
Ben Wolfgang, writing for The Washington Times, contends that the party’s interest in substantive education reform has been blunted by their close ties and dependence on the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
“The Democratic Party, quite bluntly, needs teachers unions to be effective,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. “We can count on teachers unions to send busloads of teachers into swing states at the right times. The relationship between the party and the unions is very long-standing. As a result of all the work the teachers unions were doing for the Democratic Party, party leaders threw their hands up on education.”
The conflict between the unions and Democratic party operatives even marred a show of unity at the Democratic National Convention underway this week in Charlotte, North Carolina. At issue was a film, scheduled for wide release later this year and given a semi-private screening to convention attendees earlier this week, called “Won’t Back Down,” which fictionalizes an attempt by a parent group to take over a failing school using a “parent trigger” law similar to the one on the books in California.
Led by AFT President Randi Weingarten, labor officials have ripped the movie for purportedly painting teachers’ unions as part of the status quo, contributors to those failing systems and a part of the problem with American education today.
“Using the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen … the film affixes blame on the wrong culprit: America’s teachers unions,” she said in a recent statement.
Several education reform stars, including former head of the Washington D.C. school district Michelle Rhee, who spoke at the convention reiterated the fact that they don’t consider the organization of teachers to be a de facto barrier to comprehensive educational overhaul. Rather, they feel that the unions stand in the way of individual parents and teachers being able to voice their own opinions on the issues. From the tenor of the speeches, there seemed to be some importance to reassert Democratic Party’s support for organized labor, teachers unions included, with many saying that they feel that teachers’ collective bargaining power was being curtailed too extensively.