Certainly Election Day has proven to be a bloodbath for President Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee. From the loss of senate seats in North Carolina, Iowa, Montana, and Colorado, to the defeats of Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in the usually-reliable Maryland and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s unexpected comeback victory, the president and his party now are now forced to deal with a revived Republican Party that will work hard to make the last two years of his tenure tougher than ever.
But for the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which were expected to spend $80 million in an effort to defend their declining influence in education policy, the setbacks are even worse.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker won a second term over Mary Burke by a seven-point margin even after the NEA and AFT (along with other public-sector union allies) vigorously propped up the Democratic gubernatorial nominee;s campaign. As it turned out, the NEA’s and AFT’s arguments that Walker’s successful effort to end collective bargaining and forced dues collections were terrible for teachers and other public-sector employees fell upon deaf ears. Walker’s fellow Republicans in the legislature will also retain control, which bodes well for expanding the state’s voucher program and other school choice efforts.
In Michigan, Rick Snyder beat the NEA- and AFT-backed Mark Schauer by a four-point margin. As with Walker, the NEA’s and AFT’s arguments against Snyder’s school reform efforts — including ending the ability of the two unions to force teachers into becoming members — also didn’t resonate with either teachers or the rest of the public. Thanks to the victory, along with keeping control of the legislature in the hands of his fellow Republicans, Snyder will have another four years to advance other key reforms — including further expanding the Wolverine State’s inter-district choice program
Then there is Rhode Island, where State Treasurer Gina Raimondo won a first term as governor in spite of opposition from the NEA earlier this year over her successful push to replace the state’s virtually-insolvent defined-benefit plan with a hybrid plan featuring defined-contribution elements. Without having to repay the NEA for their support, Raimondo has a free hand to back the reforms being undertaken by Supt. Deborah Gist, which, like Raimondo’s pension reforms, don’t make the union all that happy.
And let’s not forget Bruce Rauner, the private-equity fund boss who defeated incumbent Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn to become the Land of Lincoln’s next chief executive. Rauner’s victory is especially embarrassing for the AFT. After all, the union’s president, Randi Weingarten, went barnstorming for Quinn even as its affiliate, along with that of the NEA, are suing to stop implementation of the modest pension improvement plan Quinn successfully passed last year. Now the two unions face a governor who can work with a state legislature likely willing to go further on addressing a teachers’ pension insolvency of $76 billion, according to Dropout Nation‘s latest analysis.
But these aren’t the only defeats for the NEA and AFT. In Florida, Rick Scott, who found enough backbone during his first term to pass a teacher evaluation overhaul (before backing down on passing a Parent Trigger law and other measures) managed to win a second term despite intense opposition from the two unions. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich — who has backed Common Core against opposition from movement conservatives as well as backed Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s reform initiatives (to the annoyance of the two unions) — won in a landslide. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who successfully backed a referendum giving the Peach State the ability to authorize charter schools, gets a second term. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy will likely win re-election after forcing the AFT (through the AFL-CIO’s state branch there) to back his run — two years after passing a modest overhaul package both it (along with the NEA affiliate there) strongly opposed. And in New York State, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was snubbed by the AFT’s New York State affiliate earlier this year, now has a freer hand to take on the union and other traditionalists thanks to his re-election victory.
The only good news for the two unions: That Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett lost to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf in a landslide. But given that Corbett had been trailing Wolf in the double-digits for some time –along with the lack of enthusiasm among reformers tired of his unwillingness to aggressively lead on systemic reform (and flip-flop on Common Core) — this wasn’t shocking. Based on the early counts so far in California, the NEA’s and AFT’s ally, Supt. Tom Torlakson, may keep his office and beat Marshall Tuck. But it is still early. [Update: Torlakson is the winner by just four percentage points, a squeaker given that he is the incumbent in what is supposed to be a traditionalist-friendly state.] And even if Tuck wins, he would still be one of many players in the Golden State’s byzantine education governance structure still dominated by traditionalists.
But when you look at other races — including wins by two reform-minded candidates for the board of Indianapolis Public Schools (the worst district in the Midwest outside of Detroit), and the likely takeover of the West Contra Costa district in California’s Bay Area — it is clear that the NEA and AFT have been beaten. Badly. So bad that Weingarten cancelled what was supposed to be a gloating victory call with the press. Oh well.
Two lessons are clear in the results from Election Day. The first? That governors who aggressively undertake systemic reform (and smartly challenge NEA and AFT affiliates) will not only keep office, but can actually build coalitions that can help them on other issues. In the case of Walker, Kasich, and perhaps, even Snyder, their efforts even give them a chance to compete for the Republican presidential nomination two years down the road. When governors use their considerable reserves of political support to advance reform, leverage their bully pulpits effectively, be willing to suffer temporary political setbacks, and successfully built coalitions, they can achieve reforms that can help build brighter futures for all children.
The second: That the NEA’s and AFT’s influence continues to be in decline. This has been the reality for some time. But the inability of the unions to count on unquestioned support from a Democratic National Committee they have long bankrolled became especially visible this summer when the two unions made desperate and unheeded calls by both unions this summer for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to resign. That Duncan and the Obama Administration ignored them — and that other reform-minded Democrats such as Cuomo have done the same — is evidence that the once-strong ties between the unions and Democrats have frayed. Especially in light of the fact that the NEA and AFT will back Democrats anyway, the party has no reason to do more for the unions other than pay them lip service every two years.
But the problem isn’t just external. Especially among younger, reform-minded teachers who make up the majority of rank-and-file members, the NEA’s and AFT’s unwillingness to move on from the outdated industrial union mindset toward one that embraces elevating the profession has made them even less loyal to the unions than ever. This has been made clear in Wisconsin, where the NEA and AFT affiliates are merging after losing, respectively, one-third and 63 percent of membership after Walker successfully ended compulsory dues collections. When given a choice to stay or walk, many teachers will run toward professional associations who will do better by their careers and the teaching profession.
As for those who stay? They may not even be willing to come out and campaign for the NEA’s and AFT’s favored candidates. This is especially true for hardcore progressives among traditionalists, who are just as dismayed with the unions over what they consider a lack of willingness to fight hard for the established order. That the AFT, in particular, does all it can to clamp down on dissent through the tactics of its governing Progressive coalition (as well as by increasing the number of loyal retirees voting in elections) also makes it difficult for the unions to mobilize. This is one reason why Walker and others won this time around.
Instead of celebrating Tom Wolf’s victory in Pennsylvania, the NEA and AFT should abandon their outdated thinking that weakens them (and also helps perpetuate the nation’s education crisis). Or face their own abyss. All the influence-buying in the world will not help them.
*Note: Updated to include new information on the California Superintendent results.