The internal war among Democrats over education policy escalated another notch this weekend at the annual convention of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union in Los Angeles. Delegates savaged the “education reform” agenda as a corporate-led threat to “everything we hold dear.” And three high-profile party stalwarts announced the formation of Democrats for Public Education, to contest the reform agenda with a public-centered alternative. We’re likely to see proxy fights between these opposing forces for years to come.
For many years now, Democrats at the highest levels — including President Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan — have pursued a series of so-called reform policies, which include charter schools, test-based teacher evaluations and eliminations of tenure. The Race to the Top program, where the Education Department forced school policy changes as a condition for competing for additional funding support, engendered a quiet revolution in the classroom. Duncan famously called Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans,” an example of his desire to overhaul school districts and break union power.
Teacher’s unions typically resisted the reformers, but in the end would come back into the Democrats’ fold, perceiving Republicans as worse. Both the AFT and the National Education Association (NEA) endorsed President Obama in 2012. With teachers a substantial part of the Democratic activist base, unions had reasons to downplay the disagreements.
But a ruling out of California became a touchstone, bringing this simmering debate further into the open. In the Vergara case, bankrolled by Silicon Valley elites, a state judge effectively invalidated California’s teacher tenure rule as violating the civil rights of poor students, who cannot have bad teachers jettisoned from their classrooms. The ruling earned praise from Arne Duncan, and Obama Administration alums formed a public relations group to support future copycat lawsuits in other states. Vergara threatens perhaps the core position of teacher’s unions – job security for their members.
AFT reacted with a stern letter to Duncan, saying that “teachers across the country are wondering why the secretary of education thinks that stripping them of their due process is the way to help all children succeed.” But NEA, under new president Lily Eskelsen García, went further, officially calling for Duncan’s resignation.
With AFT perceived as more conciliatory, many did not expect them to follow the NEA’s lead. But on Sunday, in a resolution committing to fighting attacks against teachers, the union did debate demanding Duncan’s resignation, ultimately settling on cheeky language that mirrored the Vergara case. The AFT formally asked President Obama to implement a “secretary improvement plan” that would urge Duncan to press for higher funding, support teachers and end the “test and punish” system of education reform. “If Secretary Duncan does not improve,” the resolution continued, “given that he has been treated fairly and his due process rights have been upheld, the secretary of education must resign.”
Ultimately this granting of due process for the Education Secretary sidestepped a direct no-confidence vote, which some delegates sought. Nate Goldbaum, a Chicago public schoolteacher, designated Duncan “the man who is taking away everything we hold dear” and pushed for his immediate resignation. But Dennis Kelly, who authored the eventual language, argued that, “Arne Duncan did not appoint himself Secretary of Education,” claiming the resolution holds his boss, the president, accountable. “He made the choice, he must make the change,” Kelly said. The contrast between how the AFT treated Duncan, and how Duncan would treat who he perceives to be an ineffective teacher, added another layer of meaning.
“This special order is basically saying ‘enough is enough,’” said AFT President Randi Weingarten in a statement. “There’s a lot of hurt that has been expressed from the floor — the feeling that the Secretary of Education doesn’t walk in the shoes of public educators.”
AFT members also held an unusual debate over the controversial Common Core standards, which even supporters described as poorly implemented. Some teachers denounced it as a stalking horse for over-testing, arguing against “collaborating with those who want to destroy public education.” After a nearly hour-long debate, AFT committed to supporting Common Core, while acknowledging its flaws and demanding corrections. It looked nothing like the kind of backing the White House would want.
Finally, AFT announced the formation of Democrats for Public Education, co-chaired by former governors Ted Strickland (Ohio) and Jennifer Granholm (Michigan), along with DNC vice-chair and frequent commentator Donna Brazile, who addressed the convention Sunday. “I am ashamed of some of Democrats in my own party,” said Brazile in a feisty speech that received multiple standing ovations. “We’re not going to be silent while you are being attacked.”
The group intends to champion additional funds to make quality public education available to everyone, and reject what Brazile called “market-driven” reforms that undermine the learning environment. “We have done a poor job educating people about education,” Brazile told delegates. “Only when we have clarified that, can we talk about how best to achieve it.”
The name of the organization clearly references Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), which has helped deliver millions to anti-union candidates and lobbied for policy changes across the country, including a right-wing effort to crush unions in California, which voters rejected in 2012. Backed by wealthy philanthropists and hedge fund managers, DFER has the resources to dominate education debates and intimidate opposing viewpoints. “I can’t tell you how critical it is to change the message that’s out there,” said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., in a Sunday speech.
While Brazile told Salon in an interview that the goal is mostly to explain the promise of public education rather than to play politics, the group has been set up as a 527, or an outside political group. It will certainly have the ability to run ads, either for issue-based advocacy or in political campaigns. Brazile expects a regional structure similar to DFER, with several additional co-chairs to come aboard in the ensuing months.
While Democrats for Public Education may not have the funds of DFER (as Brazile told Salon, “We don’t have their money and we don’t want their money”), there are plenty of races that could use a counterweight to education reform groups. Perhaps the biggest is in Chicago, where Rahm Emanuel earned the enmity of teachers for school closures and a bitter strike (during which DFER spent $1 million on pro-Emanuel ads). Emanuel faces re-election next February, and a new poll out this weekend shows that Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union, leads him by 9 points. That comes before one dollar has been spent on the race, of course, and Emanuel will have millions at his disposal. So Democrats for Public Education’s role just in Chicago would be critical, if they decide to back candidates.
DFER had a one-line response to the formation of the rival group: “Welcome to the jungle, baby.” How did Donna Brazile respond to that? “I’m not going to respond to misleading half-truths, propaganda and lies from those who want to make public education corporate,” she told Salon. “My mama told me it’s not what they call you, it’s what you answer to. And we’re going to answer by talking up education when it gets talked down.”
It’s clear this internal battle will become pronounced in 2016 and beyond. Teachers contribute an enormous amount of time and energy to Democratic politics, and they do not feel they have allies at the top levels. Rank-and-file Democrats now have competing poles to support on education, and they need to choose a side.