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Union Tensions at DNC

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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.”

--Michele McNeil

15 Comments

Amazing how trendy it has become to make teachers the scapegoats for the low-performance of urban schools.

I don’t remember cops being blamed for high crime rates in urban areas. Or for that matter, low-quality doctors being blamed for health problems among the poor and uninsured.

It is beyond scapegoating teachers, though that is surely part of it.

If teachers are not to blame for the sorry state of inner city education then maybe it is the urban Democratic mayors and other elected officials who are responsible. Every key decision about public education has been made by an elected official (and in the urban areas that is an almost exclusively Democratic Club) or someone appointed (and serving at the pleasure of) elected officials.

Anyone who examines... really examines... the history of education in any of the major urban areas... Newark and DC would be two of the best examples... will see a history of neglect and abandonment by the politicians who have their own personal agendas. If inner city students had high priced lobbyists who could donate piles of money to the political campaigns of Adrian Fenty and Corey Booker, we'd see a lot more support for real educational reform instead of the scapegoating we are seeing now.

In May 2001, Linda Bowles accurately summarized the role of the teachers unions in public education:

"Today, government schools operate under the booted heel of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest and most powerful trade union in America. It is a partisan left-wing organization and a dominant force in the Democrat Party.

"The NEA is not a neutral organization devoted to education. Its leaders oppose merit pay and the competency testing of teachers. They are desperately afraid of competition. They fear parents will desert government schools if given a choice. They value equality over excellence and have a condom orientation toward morality.

"The NEA is protected by politicians bought and paid for, fair and square, according to the finest traditions of quid pro quo politics. There is absolutely no way to avoid the conclusion that the children of America have been sold out. Corrupt politicians protect the union's educational monopoly from accountability and competition, insulate it from reform and reward its academic failures with increased funding.

"These unions are deeply entrenched, and are prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect the lucrative white collar racket they are running. They have succeeded in killing plans to provide vouchers to parents whose children are trapped in failing schools."

Unions have been the only force that enabled teachers to get decent pay and working conditions. That being said, it's time for teachers to take the next step, which is professionalization of their role in the public eye. Like doctors and lawyers, we need a universal code of ethics that is watchdogged by teachers themselves and which promotes an APOLITICAL agenda of support for kids, learning, and ethical professional practice (as defined by teachers themselves). In this internet age, this can become a grassroots movement that works in synergy with REAL reform efforts, because, I, too, am tired of teachers (or even kids or parents) being the scapegoats (excellent choice of concepts!) for a system that is obsolete in its rigid obedience to its "factory" roots. This is not a productive analogy for teaching, as any teacher will gladly attest!

I want to see an end to the political deal making, which, if you will remember, at least one candidate has consistently promised. I think we need to demand that he stand up and be counted (or "Stand and Deliver" as Edward James Olmos told us) by providing a real agenda for the reinvention of public education: A NEW national policy that rewards states/districts that DOWNSIZE the bureaucracy and create smaller, lighter, faster, more responsive, more supportive, and more PERSONALIZED schools for all kids--and for all teachers as well. Imagine having the energy to create learning instead of "lion-taming" 150 kids per day or, even at the younger levels, instead of dealing with fear- based "standardized" testing? Join me on www.ChangeTheSchools.com if you want to read one person's agenda for "Exploding the Paradigm" and reinventing public ed for a new century. Or if you want to read an entertaining story about the forces that are holding us back, check out the novel ANGEL PARK. My goal is to lure readers into a deeper understanding of the core issues and the urgent need for change through the siren song of a good, mysterious story.

I find it interesting that everyone seems to forget that Ted Kennedy was the co sponsor of NCLB. This issue is not about teachers and appropriate instruction, it is about economics. The tax payers are tried of paying for nothing - and finally they are seeing teaching and learning (what teachers are responsible to do) at the heart of education reform. It does not cost additional money to teach students in a different manner or match instruction to learner needs. But it does take work and a lot of it.

NCLB was supposed to be funded to help make the changes it required and since its inception, there are no changes in funding, and in fact this year funding was lowered in California. Training is expensive and keeping up with changes require teacher training. Funding for teacher training should become a reality. Then our urban school districts can put the mean bull dog principals away. All they do is scare teachers and they don't know what they are supposed to do as instructional leaders. NEA needs to lead right now as no one else knows what to do. NEA knows what it is asking for, so give them what they know is good for teachers and students.

This goes back to the nanny state mentality. Parents who are involved have children who perform well in school. Children who have parents or a single parent who does not dedicate themselves to their children's education suffer. There is a saying that one rotten apple spoils the whole bunch, well we have a lot of rotten parents and the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Mayors should be demanding that no new tax dollars go into failing schools. Mayors should be demanding collaboration between the hundreds of already funded community groups to be involved with the school. Finally we the people should all acknowledge that without parental help all the tax dollars in our already depleated cities and the best teachers in the world will not succeed.

The NEA is a labor organization and couldn't care less about what's best for students. The union's track record clearly shows that they are more interested in collecting dues and maintaining the status quo than they are in any meaningful reform for our teachers or our public schools. The union may still have a place in education, but only if it can recognize that the world has changed and demonstrate a willingness and an ability to adapt to a more modern era.

Steve:

I agree with you that schools need to collaborate with existing community groups. Certainly most urban areas have a public health system, a mental health system and multiple social service agencies--most of whom would find it advantageous to their mission to be involved with schools.

However, as an involved parent, I think that you are being naive putting undue weight on the assumption that lots of rotten parents are spoiling the school apple barrel. As the parent of a child with disabilities, I have a pretty clearly specified role of involvement with the school through the IEP process. However it has been too many years since I realized that most of the effort I put into formulating a sound IEP was wasted because the surrounding environment was so insufficient. In short, I determined that things couldn't get better for my kid until they got better for all kids. Since that time I have diligently sought to be involved in school improvement efforts. One would think that a lone parent knocking at the school house door wanting to be involved would be overwhelmed with opportunity. Not so. Even though the federal and state governments, with support from local policy specify that parents be involved in school improvement efforts, I am repeatedly met by blank stares when I ask how I can be involved, how can I meet with the committee, how can I give input to the plan, how can I see the plan, etc. Generally I get referred to the booster club or the PTA (if there is one, or to start a PTA if there is not).

Generally, what I have observed is minimal commitment to the concept of school improvement. There is a plan, on paper, somewhere. It is not the result of a group process that examines, professionally, what data reveal, or what the literature recommends, or brainstorms solutions. It is a bunch of paperwork farmed out to individuals who don't talk to one another. It may describe some things that are already happening, or it may suggest some things that look good to the individual writing that particular portion.

While I can count on at least one invitation each year to some generic "parent" event (like "open house") in which parents are expected to mill about like sheep (if they "care"), drink punch and then go home with a handful of papers, I have never been invited to any event that focuses on reporting on the school's improvement planning or receiving parent comments on it. That would be taking both the plan, and parents, too seriously.

There always appears to be some assumption that "good parents" and "involved parents" are ones who follow school punishment with punishment at home and ensure that their children complete and turn in their homework worksheets on time. I suggest that involved parents are also the ones that question whether the school's punishment mentality is teaching discipline or just getting even, what the worksheets are supposed to be teaching (and whether they are) and why some groups of students don't appear to be learning as well as others. Competent parents have competent opinions about whether conferences are meeting their needs and whether home-school communication is adequate. Aware parents have a point of view that differs from that of teachers. They have meaningful impressions of whether schools are welcoming and responsive or set up barriers to involvement. They have some important things to share about whether Johnny understands the material when confronted with a worksheet when he gets home at night.

It is my impression that schools have about as much parent involvement as they desire.

What a bunch of baloney!The American family has been failing public schools for decades! Where's personal responsibility here? High poverty rates and high divorce rates dominate the wide achievement gap. How is it a Vietnamese family can be living in poverty in Vietnam and in one generation produce doctors, lawyers etc...? Their famlies are in intact and education and teachers are respected!!!

Steve:

I'll wager the families are respected by the schools as well--frequently not the case here--as you demonstrate.

In my opinion the union is fake and greedy. They take your money and help criminals. They don't help good teachers.

I agree with you that unions primary goals is not for the achievement of the students, nor for the "professionalism" of teaching. They have their own agenda, which does not allow any accountability.
The best solution that needs to take place is creating accountability from the ground up, by adding a parental choice, new teacher recuitment methods, and market incentives.

Please read White Chalk Crime: The REAL Reason Schools Fail for answers about this ongoing discussion. Knowledge is power and this book is a crash course on what is going on in our schools. It is available at Amazon.com or at EndTeacherAbuse.org.

Nothing will ever be accomplished on a national level as long as schools are controlled by the local government. Schools across the street or across town can have vastly different atmospheres, standards, expectations and outcomes simply because that is the way our education system is set up. As a teacher, I have seen the best and the worst, and the only way to truly change things in the school is to use our power of vote. Belong to the PTA and organize other parents and teachers. Vote out the school board members and run yourself. Vote out the governor and become vocal for high standards, high quality teachers, and safe schools. IF you belong to the teachers union, vote out the reps. That is wehre the work comes in. Stop the complaining and DO SOMETHING!!

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