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President Obama on Shaky Ground with Teachers: Can He Firm Up Support?

President Obama has some very large problems heading into 2012, and one that might surprise those inside the DC beltway is an area that should be a bulwark of support for any Democratic candidate: education. Democratic candidates tend to support public services, and the unions that represent teachers and classified workers are supportive in return. Going into the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama played to this strength when he spoke to members of the NEA, promising to "fix the broken promises of NCLB." The NEA renewed its endorsement of President Obama last month, but that does not mean he is home free. On the ground, among teachers I know, the President has some big problems.

As I posted a few days ago, most of the leading candidates in the Republican primary have taken clear stands against NCLB and the further expansions of Department of Education influence that have occurred under this president. This resonates with a conservative base that instinctively rejects "big government" telling states and local school districts how to run their affairs. But it also resonates increasingly with teachers and parents who are fed up with their schools being labeled as failures, and with poorly conceived reform proposals being mandated as a condition of federal dollars.

There are about six million teachers in this nation. More than half of them belong to unions. Many of the "reforms" that have been pushed forward recently greatly reduce the ability of unions to represent their members, in that they eliminate seniority, or strip the contract down to bare bones, meaning that only salary and benefits are negotiated, and other critical matters such as working conditions, length of day and school year are left up to the discretion of the district. Teacher unions run the risk of becoming largely irrelevant if they lose the ability to protect teachers' rights to due process, and to effect the conditions under which we teach.

The Obama administration has been rather coy about this wave of reforms, suggesting that they support collective bargaining, while also supporting many of the policies that reduce the due process and seniority rights that teachers have had.

From the start, Secretary Duncan has specialized in doubletalk.
He has given innumerable speeches calling for us to avoid teaching to the test, at the same time his policies mandate that teacher pay and evaluations be based in part on test scores. When President Obama called for a reduction in standardized tests this year, Secretary Duncan insisted he was "on the same page," even though the Department of Education has put in motion a tremendous expansion of the frequency, scope and importance of tests.

Teachers have noticed these discrepancies. Jim Sturgios reminded us this week of the list of grievances prepared at the NEA convention last month. Teachers remember when Obama promised to "put on his walking shoes" and stand with workers if collective bargaining were to come under attack. He missed his chance this spring in Wisconsin, and recently he has responded to such questions by suggesting public employees ought to "share the burden," by accepting cuts to pay and benefits.

What could be the cost?

At this point, teachers are getting politically involved not to support Obama's candidacy, but to protest his policies. The Save Our Schools March a few weeks ago was attended by grassroots activists from dozens of states, many of whom are getting even more organized as they return home. Many of us were active campaigners and fundraisers for Obama in 2008. Not this time. This time, that energy is going into organizing to defend the schools in which we work from the policies his administration continues to pursue. It is Republican candidates who are promising to reduce the level of federal interference, though I have little confidence that they will actually do much to improve our schools. But at the very least, many politically active teachers have been removed as supporters of the President, and in a tight race, this loss of support could be decisive.

How could this be turned around?

What is called for is a shift in the trajectory of federal policies. Secretary Duncan has called NCLB a "slow motion train wreck," but his approach has been to use the terrible momentum of this law to push us down the wrong track of his favorite reforms. This is bad policy and is contrary to the law that set up ESEA in the first place. The Department of Education needs to step back and fundamentally reinvent itself as a listening and learning organization. Lynn Stoddard's petition captures this idea well:

Change the U.S. Department of Education from a dictator of school policy to that of a research, advisory and resource organization.

This shift would have huge implications. Secretary Duncan is fond of praising dedicated teachers for the work that we do, but when President Obama recently convened his roundtable of advisers on education, not a single teacher was even in the room.

President Obama knows where to find us. And the six million teachers in America could be decisive come November, 2012. But the way things are going, we are left feeling as if we can support him just about as well as he has supported us. Which is not very much at all.

What do you think? Will educators play a role in President Obama's campaign?


[Editorial note: Education Week Teacher is not affiliated with the Save Our Schools event; the views expressed in this opinion blog do not reflect the endorsement of Education Week or Editorial Projects in Education, which take no editorial positions]

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