Michael Grunwald penned a 7,500-word behemoth for Politico’s The Agenda profiling U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that is sure to elicit all sorts of pointed commentary and critiques. I wasn’t expecting a pair of universal truths and a fascinating nugget about the 2011 National Education Association Representative Assembly.
First, the truths. Grunwald states in one paragraph what we all know, but don’t like to acknowledge:
The thing is, education policy is not just about kids. It’s also about jobs and budgets and politics. Education is a huge industry with a lot of government money sloshing around.
Everyone wants what’s best for kids – provided it’s best for me, too.
Then there is this truth, which is self-evident but never seemed to make much of an impression at NEA:
Johnny Taylor Jr., president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, says he often has to remind leaders of the schools he represents that their bitter disappointment with Duncan is not consistent with their reflexive defenses of Obama. Taylor says they just don’t want to hear that the first black president is not that into them.
“I keep saying: Stop shooting the messenger!” Taylor said. “Don’t get pissed at Arne Duncan; he’s a good soldier. If you’re screaming bloody murder at Arne, and he’s still not helping you, that’s because the president doesn’t want to help you.”
But the item that should make NEA activists screw themselves into the ceiling is this throwaway story about the 2011 NEA Representative Assembly, where the union’s delegates passed a new business item condemning the job Duncan was doing. It was dubbed “13 Things We Hate About Arne Duncan.”
At the NEA’s convention in 2011, the union formally declared that it was “appalled” with Duncan’s work. But at the same convention, the NEA endorsed the president’s reelection, as if the education secretary whose family hung out with the Obamas at Camp David was some kind of rogue operative. I heard from several sources that Duncan actually helped negotiate the language of his own condemnation; he’s no politician, but you can’t run the Chicago schools without some sense of politics. “Arne understood the political realities,” a former aide said. “The union needed a target for its anger, and he was happy to take a bullet for the president.”
You might wonder how it is possible for Duncan or his people to influence the content of a union new business item. Under normal circumstances it would be difficult and risky. But this item was submitted by the NEA Board of Directors, not by an ad hoc group of individual delegates. Its wording was crafted at the highest levels of NEA, making it entirely feasible that Duncan had his input.
If true – and I would expect vigorous denials if anyone bothered to inquire – I might actually have to adjust my cynicism meter into the red zone. This is manipulation of the union’s most devoted activists on a grand scale.