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Will Obama Stand Up to the Teachers' Unions?


That's essentially the question The Politico asked of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, in this interview posted last night.

The question came about when the interviewer remarked that Republican frontrunner John McCain has often bucked his own party (on issues such as immigration) and has the battle scars to prove it. So, The Politico reporter asked, will Sen. Obama be willing to stand up to his own party?

Obama says yes, and he offers education to prove his point. In the interview, the Illinois senator professes his support for charter schools and "looking at how we can reward excellence in the classroom" (which sounds a lot like merit pay, an issue the teachers' unions oppose.) He admits that the unions haven't been "thrilled" that he's talked about such issues. He says: "I’m not going to be bound by just a certain way of talking about these things, in order for us to move forward on behalf of our kids."

That's not exactly music to the National Education Association's ears. But then again, what remains to be seen is if Sen. Obama would be willing to put the full weight of his candidacy (or presidency), and the momentum and excitement that may accompany him, behind such thorny issues.


I don't know anything about the Politico's interviewer and I don't want to blame the messenger, but why are people who are knowledgable about education allowing the issue to be framed that way?

There are countless constructive ideas that teachers unions would support, just like there are countless ideas that we would oppose. Why presuppose that Obama wouldn't be able to frame the issues in a more constructive way?

As a mother of a child who attends a charter school, I can't say I am entirely happy with the charter school's ambiguous policies. I, however, am wholeheartedly against the monopolized power of the Teachers' Union since it has not endeavored to achieve equal opportunity to children in poor neighborhood. Teachers work harder only when they teach children in affluent neighborhoods because of the active intervention of middle class parents. At charter schools, on the other hand, parents without college diplom can monitor teachers' performance through PTA power.
Charter school system is still evolving and in the phase of experiment. But when our government invests resources in its effective policy making, I belive, we can have a better public education system for all students while fending off undue influence of the Teachers' Union.

Just take out the word "Union," the last word in your posting. In other words, "fend off the undue influence of the teachers." Are you kidding? You would leave the influence in the hands of... who? Are parents knowledgable about pedagogy? Politicians? Businessman? Academia in their ivory towers? I sure do hope your child gets a better education than you seem to be advocating for him/her.

And before the next obvious "talking point" gets any undeserved play, please people, "teachers" unions are exactly that - a union of "teachers." Pedagogues. People who live, breath, eat, sleep and know education more than anyone else. As pedagogues, if you think providing the best education possible is not their top priority, then I've got a charter school to sell you.

Finally, will teachers "stand up" to the consistently anti-union stances of Education Week? Or will they accept the fact that unionism is a "relic of the past," and cave in to the "inevitability" of the weak-minded reforms proposed by a politially powerful coalition of politicians, businessmen and academia?

I am a knee-jerk liberal from way back. I know, as Phil Ochs sang, "all the old union hymns." I don't cross picket lines. I honk and give strikers the thumbs up.

But there is something wrong when we confuse the obvious aims of a labor union (to ensure paid employment and decent working conditions for its members) with those of educating the masses. Certainly there is, at times, overlap. But there is also, at times, conflict. The labor organizing model, adopted from industry, calls for isolating the needs of workers from the claims of owners, or in their stead, managers, in an attempt to reclaim from capital the workers' contribution to it. In public education this is only the case from very macro level that acknowledges the role of schools in providing trained workers for industry (however that may be defined these days). And industry is well (rather than ill) served by maintaining a pool of unemployed workers, at government expense, to keep wages low. Entry into the world market confuses this further through outsourcing jobs to developing countries with cheaper labor.

Within public education this creates a rather artificial divide between teachers and administrators--even though both really function as labor. This inhibits teachers from owning reform--which is seen as a function of administration. Maintaining the divide requires teachers to make administration the enemy and to fight any reform efforts, save those that result in higher salary, increased benefits, or lower class size. Reform that requires stratification of the labor force (teachers), enhanced training requirements, or any movement that is not individually initiated and granted on a seniority basis, is something to be suspicious of, if not actively opposed. The result is performance of a job that does not alter from day one to retirement, with raises determined by contract rather than growth in ability, or movement into areas requiring more responsibility (unless one joins the ranks of management, and goes over to the enemy).

While each and every one of the teachers involved may be a wonderful, highly trained person who cares deeply about all children and how they learn, there is nothing within the system to guarantee, motivate, or support that condition. There is much to protect the opposite. If government is to be cast in the role of capital in labor disputes--really an erroneous assumption--then it must in fact stand up to unions, in order to carry out its responsibility for the education of the masses.

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