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Playing Politics at Teachers' Union Conventions

My colleagues over at Teacher Beat, Stephen Sawchuk and Liana Heitin, crushed coverage of the recent National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers annual conferences. Since we're heading into the midterm election season, it's no surprise that both the NEA and the AFT played some political hardball.

Here's a wrap-up of all the politics-related news to come out of the conventions that you should know about. (Big shout-out to Sawchuk and Heitin for their A-plus reporting.)

First, both unions ripped U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, slamming his leadership and education-policy agenda and passing resolutions that called for his resignation. At the NEA convention, which was Dennis van Roekel's last as president, members passed a resolution that called for Duncan's resignation effective immediately. As Sawchuk and Heitin astutely point out, similarly themed resolutions were introduced at the 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010 meetings, but have never before passed.

Following suit, the AFT passed a resolution called on President Barack Obama to put Duncan on an "improvement plan," and demand his resignation if he doesn't change positions the union deems harmful. 

Both of these moves come on the heels of union anger over moves across the United States to revise due-process protections, tenure, and seniority—some of which have been supported by Democrats, including the Obama administration through its Race to the Top competition and waiver program. The AFT delegates outlined a laundry list of complaints against Duncan. They included, as Sawchuk reported, calling out Duncan for creating Race to the Top, which incentivized states to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores; Duncan's support for the recent Vergara v. California equity-lawsuit ruling, which declared certain teacher protections unconstitutional in California; and his support of planned teacher firings in Central Falls, R.I., in 2010.

The AFT also slammed the Obama administration's backing of accountability systems that include value-added data, in a resolution that called value-added measures and student-growth percentiles "fundamentally flawed." Specifically, the AFT called for maintaining the disaggregated test-score reporting of the No Child Left Behind Act, but eliminating the required annual testing of every student in grades 3-8, as that law now stipulates. Instead, they delegates voted to support a sampling methodology akin to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Similarly, the NEA passed a policy statement against allowing value-added and test-score data to be used in teacher evaluations or to support any type of employment action. 

Sawchuk also did some pretty impressive deep dives into both unions' financial spending habits (the most recent filings represent the time period from September 1, 2012 to August 31, 2013). Notably, the AFT spent $28.3 million on political activities and lobbying while the NEA spent a whopping $44.8 million.

Finally, a new political organization streamed onto the scene during the AFT's conference. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile unveiled Democrats for Public Education, which she will co-chair along with former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. There's not a whole lot of information available yet about the organization, but AFT President Randi Weingarten's introduction of it pretty much cements it in the teachers' unions' camp:

"The promise of America is being undercut by people who devote their fortunes to decreasing our strength, to advancing the politics of division, and to promoting economic policies that redistribute more income to fewer people. And they've been aided and abetted by some lawmakers, judges and even some Democrats. Some—like those who call themselves Democrats for Education Reform—mimic the Jeb Bushes and Eli Broads of the world, promoting competition and test-obsession. But a new group of Democrats is emerging: the Democrats for Public Education, led by Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Donna Brazile, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who want to stand up for our students, for our educators and for public education."

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