The education event that followed the NEA luncheon showed the growing tensions within the Democratic Party over school reform, and the role of teachers’ unions.
Though it’s no surprise an event sponsored by the Democrats for Education Reform would have a slight anti-union message; many of the speakers at the event took several shots at unions during the press conference announcing the Education Equality Project in June.
Today, the sentiment was strong and persistent at standing-room-only, three-hour forum called Ed Challenge for Change. In fact, some of the big-city mayors who participated predicted that had such a forum been held four years ago, a mere five souls would have showed.
Here at the Denver Art Museum, Democratic mayors from Newark, N.J., Washington D.C., and Denver joined education reform darlings including New York City’s Joel Klein and Washington D.C.’s Michelle Rhee. The group was referred to as the “misfits” of the Democratic Party by DFER's Joe Williams, a nod to their willingness to speak up against the influence of teachers’ unions, which have formed the backbone of the party.
The educators, along with the Rev. Al Sharpton, kicked off the event with a nearly hour-long press conference to tout the event. There, Rhee (who left early to catch a flight home; D.C. schools open on Monday), took the Democrats to task, saying the party is “supposed to be the party that looks out for poor and minority kids,” when that’s not actually happening.
The anti-union sentiment spilled over into policy forums that followed. The fight against the teachers’ unions and other special interests is a “battle at the heart of the Democratic Party,” said Newark Mayor Cory Booker. “As Democrats, we have been wrong on education. It’s time to get right.”
Even former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who has tried to avoid controversy in his position as the ED in ’08 leader, earned some murmurs from the audience when he said that reformers cannot be “wedded to someone else’s union rules and that politicians, practically speaking, need to work with unions even thought they are “wedded to the past.”