NEA spent eight years in the political wilderness with the Bush administration, which, for better or worse, crafted a bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act that the union hated. NEA did not succumb to the pleas of Democrats like George Miller and Ted Kennedy, who were instrumental in ushering the bill through Congress with more Democrat votes than Republican ones. The union continued to fight the law in every venue available.
So NEA officers can hardly be blamed for investing a lot of hope in the 2008 presidential campaign. Though they found themselves unable to choose between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, they were convinced that the all-but-certain election of a Democratic President would solve many of their problems. All they needed, they believed, was “a seat at the table.”
While Obama was – and is – generally aligned with NEA beliefs, there were warning signs from the very beginning that he had his own ideas about public education.
Before I attend each annual NEA convention, I revisit what I wrote during previous conventions. It’s entertaining – if I do say so myself – because when you line them up they start to read like a little history. On the occasion of the 2008 NEA Representative Assembly, I wrote this:
My guess is that a President Obama would have the same sort of mostly supportive, but strained, relationship that many Democratic governors have with the teachers’ unions. There is good reason to believe Obama and the NEA will not see eye-to-eye on many education issues – and I don’t mean his half-assed reference to merit pay at last year’s convention. I mean something from his actual record as a U.S. Senator.
NEA tracks every bill even remotely related to amending or revising the No Child Left Behind Act. In this session, the union supported 134 bills it believes will improve NCLB. It took no position on nine others.
NEA opposed 18 bills it felt would make NCLB worse. Sixteen of those bills were introduced by Republicans, and one by Joe Lieberman.
The lone Democratic bill NEA opposed? Obama’s S. 114 – The Innovation Districts for School Improvement Act. You can read for yourself what the bill proposes. But this what NEA says the bill proposes:
“Mandatory use of grant funds include: 1) establishing a teacher evaluation system using gains in student test scores; 2) allowing ‘community stakeholders’ to have a role in designing teacher evaluation systems; and 3) providing merit pay for teachers based upon gains in student test scores.” (I particularly like NEA’s scare quotes around “community stakeholders.”)
Obama has a thin record as a U.S. Senator, but one of his major forays into public education was singled out for opposition by NEA’s powers-that-be. So if you are an NEA delegate who believes in Hope and Change, your first Hope is that Obama will Change his mind.
So NEA miscalculated and was chagrined to find President Obama building on Senator Obama’s education agenda. But Obama miscalculated as well. He believed that while some of his ideas would make the union uncomfortable, he would be able to assuage fears and negotiate compromises. So last year, he sent Arne Duncan to hold a special session with the delegates at the NEA Representative Assembly. The meeting was convivial, but it was a laying-out of competing stances rather than a joint strategy session.
Time was running out even then. After the session, I wrote:
It’s hard not to root for Obama and Duncan, who continue to pitch the “let’s collaborate and come up with something that works” message. The problem, it hardly needs repeating, is that we don’t all agree about “what works.” And some people don’t care if it works or not, as long as the checks keep coming.
Obama and Duncan have given education reformers hope because they sincerely believe they have found a third way. But you worry about their confidence that sincerity will overcome all obstacles. Duncan actually said at one point, “We need to have carrots and sticks,” as if he were the first one to think of it.
That’s all well and good. The real test will come when there aren’t enough carrots and NEA files suit against the sticks. Being Democrats buys Obama and Duncan time and the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t buy them invulnerability.
So here we are, not quite at the stage of open warfare between NEA and the White House, but headed down that road. Neither side shows an inclination to back down. In Congress and in statehouses, the clarity of its Professor Wagstaff stance will benefit the union. Obama and the Democrats will need NEA activism in what promises to be a challenging election year.
But when it comes to public and media relations, NEA’s entrenchment is disastrous. If the union rails against an Obama administration, it signals that it can’t work with anyone short of a hand puppet. An “us against the world” battle cry works wonders for union activism, but it’s problematic because “the world” has a lot more votes.
The teachers’ unions don’t like to be attacked, but what they are really worried about is being ignored. If we ever reach that point, then we’ll know the political climate has truly changed.