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How the Democrats alienated teachers' unions

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is strongly opposed by teachers' unions.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan is strongly opposed by teachers' unions.
Andrew Burton
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, voted for a resolution over the weekend calling for Education Secretary Arne Duncan's resignation.

Duncan, unsurprisingly, shrugged it off. The unions' opposition isn't shocking: the NEA has been unhappy with the Obama administration since at least 2012, when they endorsed the president and spent millions on his re-election but also passed a 13-point resolution criticizing his education policy.

Politically, the teachers' unions are still a force to be reckoned with — and they're still affiliated almost exclusively with the Democratic Party. But the unions and their members are contributing millions of dollars to a party that doesn't enact education policy they like.

That can produce what looks like a paradox: teachers' unions and the Democratic Party line up on other political and social issues, and there's a knee-jerk instinct to pair teachers' unions with Democrats on education, too. But the unions and the Democratic Party are increasingly out of step.

What unions don't like about Obama's approach

The divisions between unions and the Democratic Party predate the Obama administration. President Bill Clinton was a vociferous supporter of charter schools. But under Education Secretary Arne Duncan, whose rocky relationship with teachers' unions go back to his time as superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, the relationship has grown more contentious.

Race to the Top, a $4.4-billion federal competitive grant program, was the centerpiece of the Obama administration's first-term education policy. And teachers' unions hate almost everything about it.

The way Duncan typically sums it up: for less than 1 percent of what the federal government spends annually on K-12 education, the grants encouraged states to adopt a range of reforms.

States lifted caps on charter schools, adopted the Common Core state standards, and agreed to link teachers' evaluations — and in some cases their pay — to student test scores and classroom observations.

Teachers' unions found little to like in this approach. They don't like the concept of competitive grants, which pick winners and losers among states and can be seen as unfairly penalizing students in states that don't get the money. The Obama administration has reused the competitive grant concept to encourage everything from per-kindergarten expansion to higher education innovation.

Nor did they like the reforms themselves. The competitive grants led to "bad, inappropriate, and short-sighted state policy," the NEA said in its 13-point condemnation of Duncan.

In the past two years, the opposition has, if anything, increased. Teachers' unions are skeptical of a range of policies the Obama administration has embraced, including charter schools and competitive grants.

But the red-hot center of the debate is whether teachers should be judged in part based on students' standardized test scores. Value-added measures use complex statistical modeling to try to put an exact number on the difference a teacher makes in a student's education. Newspapers in some cities have released individual teachers' scores with names attached, which drew attention to the scores and made them far more controversial.

The Obama administration has encouraged states to use value-added scores, as well as other measurements, when evaluating teachers. It's hard to overstate how much union leaders dislike them. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, once endorsed contracts that rely on the measures, but now calls them a "sham." The new leader of the NEA went even further, calling the scores "the mark of the devil."

Even areas of agreement have downsides

Unions could have liked some aspects of Education Department policy. No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era federal school accountability law, was set to impose penalties on schools based on student test scores this year.

But Duncan, a master of using relatively little money and a heavy policy hand to influence state policy, has allowed states to avoid those consequences if they adopt other reforms.

"Accountability is a linchpin of creating a context where you can get serious about school improvement, and the rug has just been pulled out on accountability," says Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners and a special assistant on education policy during the Clinton administration, who said the changes were an example of the unions getting what they wanted.

But even that came with strings attached: Unions don't like the tradeoffs the administration demanded, such as tying teachers' professional evaluations to how students do in the classroom.

"It seems like we're clearly moving away from policies within Democratic politics that favor the unions," said Anne Hyslop, an analyst at the New America Foundation who closely tracks Education Department policymaking.

A turning point?

The question now is whether those trends will survive the Obama administration.

The unions remain key allies on other issues important to the administration, from health care to workplace protections for LGBT people. And the education committee in the House of Representatives is facing an exodus of Democratic leadership. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat who's expressed interest in the ranking member position, generally has more union-friendly policy preferences, Hyslop says.

But the reformers aren't losing ground. Democrats for Education Reform, a group Booker helped found, now has branches in 11 states. A charter school bill got a rare and overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives this spring: it passed 360-45, with just 34 Democrats in opposition.

The teachers' unions didn't take a position on the bill, although it supported several Democratic amendments. But when the measure passed, the Democratic education reformers claimed it as a victory, and an overwhelming one.

Eventually, the focus will shift to the next administration. Republicans are unlikely to win favor with the teachers' unions. And Hillary Clinton was the favored candidate of the American Federation of Teachers in 2008. Weingarten, a personal friend of Clinton's, has already contributed to the Ready for Hillary political action committee. A Clinton administration could show whether education reform is truly entrenched.

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