Your editor didn’t bother paying much mind to last week’s call by the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly for Arne Duncan’s resignation as U.S. Secretary of Education. For one, your editor was more-concerned with spending time with his lovely wife and fast-growing son during the Fourth of July weekend than with anything dealing with the union. The fact that the NEA’s call for Duncan’s resignation comes two years or so before he actually steps down from the job as part of the end of the Obama Administration’s term-limited tenure also makes the demand especially silly.
But what got your editor’s attention is the response to the resignation call from both Duncan and the Obama Administration. It was clearly not to the liking of either the NEA or other traditionalists long-opposed to the administration’s reform efforts. Duncan simply brushed off the NEA — and actually pointed out the lack of credibility the teachers’ union even has among its own rank-and-file membership — when he said that “I always try to stay out of local union politics” and that “I think most teachers do, too”. As for the White House? The president’s flacks didn’t bother to comment at all.
There are certainly some national reporters outside the education beat (along with a few newbies within it) who are finally, belatedly acknowledging what Dropout Nation and others have pointed out for at least the past six years: That neither the NEA nor the American Federation of Teachers can count on the Democratic National Committee for unquestioned support. So the NEA’s call for Duncan’s resignation is about as newsworthy as the fact that the union’s longtime second-in-command, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, was formally anointed as Dennis Van Roekel’s successor as its overlord.
At the same time, the NEA’s desperate move — along with the Obama Administration’s response to it — is noteworthy for this important reason: It epitomizes how far the NEA’s influence over education policy (as well as that of the AFT) has declined at the federal level as well as within states.
Four decades ago, the NEA wouldn’t have even had to even go so far as issue a call for Duncan’s resignation. It had more than enough influence at the federal level to beat back all but the most modest of reform proposals. Thanks to the role the NEA and the AFT has long played as the biggest financiers of political campaigns at both the state and federal levels, the two unions could merely call in a favor from a senator or representative to weaken (if not always block) any administration’s reform plans. The strong ties the two unions had to Democrats and some Republicans in the executive branch also meant that the unions could kill off the most-radical of reform plans before they moved beyond bull sessions.
But while the NEA (along with the AFT) rested comfortably on its laurels, the school reform movement began its emergence. The tax revolts of the 1970s, along with school funding lawsuits, led states to take greater responsibility for financing education. This, in turn, aroused the interest of chambers of commerce and other business groups in southern states concerned with the nation’s education crisis. These groups would then team up with governors such as Bill Clinton in Arkansas and Lamar Alexander in Tennessee to begin the push for the first wave of reforms. By 1986, those efforts, along with the Reagan Administration’s publication of A Nation At Risk, spurred the creation of some 250 state and local panels working on reform.
By the 1990s, these efforts began to be embraced by big-city Democrat mayors such as John Norquist in Milwaukee, Richard Daley in Chicago, and Anthony Williams in Washington, D.C., who would then launch school voucher initiatives, take over existing districts, and launch charter schools. Young urbanites, collegians concerned with education, and minority families, many of whom voted Democrat, would also begin to push for reforms, even starting outfits such as Teach for America, the Knowledge is Power Program, and Black Alliance for Educational Options. These organizations, their leaders — and in the case of Teach For America, their alumni — would eventually become key players in education policymaking at the federal, state, and district levels.
Meanwhile reform-minded governors began ascending into higher political office. Clinton, who had launch the first effort to use testing to weed out low-performing teachers while in Arkansas, would support modest reforms once he became president. The Improving America’s Schools Act, the reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, blessed and supported the launch and expansion of charter schools, as well as provided financing for states such as Texas to develop curricula standards. Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, would build upon Improving Schools Act (and upon the reform efforts he and other reform-minded governors undertook) by successfully convincing Congress to pass the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.
While reformers gained influence, the NEA (along with the AFT), simply hoped that it and its allies could remain dominant over education policymaking. In 1997, the NEA’s public relations counselors, the Kamber Group, implored the union to go into “crisis mode.” by answering reformers and beating back their ideas. This didn’t happen. By 2005, four years after Bush convinced Republicans and Democrats (including then-Sen. Edward Kennedy, a longtime ally of teachers unions) to transform the Improving Schools Act into No Child, the NEA finally moved to beat back reformers by spending heavily on supposedly like-minded groups who can amplify its message. Between 2005-2006 and 2010-2011, the NEA increased its contributions to such groups from $4 million to $86 million. But while some outfits such as the Economic Policy Institute were willing to do the NEA’s bidding, other outfits (including Center for American Progress and the National Council of La Raza) ended up being some of the biggest supporters of systemic reform.
By 2008, the NEA’s influence (along with that of the AFT) was in decline. That’s when the union, along with the AFT, made its biggest strategic error: It backed Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination over that of Obama. With Obama able to win office without teachers’ union support — and with Obama, a supporter of charter schools, having strong relations with reformers — his administration had a freer hand in advancing reform. The resulting efforts the administration has undertaken — including (the sensible) Race to the Top competitive grant initiative and (the counterproductive) No Child waiver gambit — have helped further the very reforms (including the expansion of charters and overhauls of teacher evaluation systems) that have further weakened the NEA’s political standing.
Now with the call for Duncan’s resignation, the NEA has fully revealed the weakness of its influence. The NEA not only has to worry about efforts by governors such as Wisconsin Scott Walker to abolish collective bargaining and reform pensions that weakens its influence, it must also contend with an administration whose own policies have the same effect. It also has no way of waging any form of effective retribution against either the administration or its fellow Democrats. For one, Obama (along with Duncan) is now termed out of office, and thus, has no reason to do the NEA’s bidding. Just as importantly, given that Democrats have learned over the past four years that NEA support in political campaigns doesn’t translate into political victories, the party is now in the position of being the tail that wags the union’s dog. And with the public largely opposed to NEA’s agenda (even as they continue to give their support to teachers), the union, along with its traditionalist allies, are on their heels politically.
Meanwhile the NEA’s (and the AFT’s) decline in influence is exacerbated by gridlock at the congressional level. With both House Republicans and Senate Democrats refusing to give each other legislative victories (and the refusal of all Republicans in Congress to allow President Obama any wins on policymaking front), both unions can’t get anything done. Certainly the NEA’s goal of striking No Child’s accountability provisions from the books dovetails with that of House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, while it has strong ties to his colleague in the Senate , Tom Harkin. But since neither man can get any legislation passed beyond the floors of their respective chambers, the NEA can’t achieve much in the way of legislative progress. This gridlock is likely to remain the norm for some time, even with Republicans likely winning control of the Senate in November, because of their likely narrow majority, the peculiarities of Senate rules (which give individual members wide-ranging control over the progress of legislation), and the NEA’s lack of strong ties with Republicans at the federal level.
But the consequences of gridlock for the NEA lies not just with the inability to shape legislation. Although the Obama Administration is unable to pass legislation it favors, it can still advance its reform agenda through various other means. This includes issuing executive orders to implement its plans as well as through administrative rule-making that can lead to interpretations of laws on the books favorable to its goals. This makes the NEA’s move to call for Duncan’s resignation (along with last month’s move by AFT President Randi Weingarten to chastise Duncan for praising the Vergara v. California decision) especially counterproductive. Having been told by the NEA that nothing the administration does will find favor with it, Obama and Duncan could simply go radical and undertake anything pleases so long as it can be backed by a favorable interpretation of federal education law. As Obama has already shown in moves this year to initiate executive orders on climate change and immigration reform, this administration is willing to push matters to the legally possible limits when it so chooses.
This isn’t to say that the NEA no longer has any influence whatsoever. As seen in California, where it has successfully convinced Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators to roll back most reforms, the union can still win some defensive (and even offensive) victories. There’s also the fact that reformers are now divided among themselves over such matters as implementing Common Core reading and math standards as well as expanding accountability. But as seen with its call for Duncan’s resignation, the NEA (along with the AFT) is battling against reformers with a weak hand. And for the union, further loss of influence (along with loss of members and money) is likely in its future.