The National Education Association makes its formal political endorsements at its Representative Assembly, which occurs each year around July 4. In 2011 the assembled Representatives will have a motion to endorse Barack Obama for reelection in 2012. The union's Political Action Committee made that decision this past week. Sam Stein provides good detail of the background of the decision in this Huffington Post piece. In short, the decision is in part payback for the number of teacher jobs saved by the stimulus, and also is because so far no one even remotely likely on the Republican side comes close to Obama on issues that matter to the NEA.
There is one more consideration. Had the state presidents not proposed a resolution for this year's assembly, formal endorsement would not have been possible until July of 2012. Stein quotess the union's director of campaigns and elections, Karen White:
If there was going to be any action taken this calendar it had to happen this week,” she said, noting, with a tinge of regret, that the union had only had four months during the 2008 election to help campaign for Obama. Owing to that constraint, she added, the NEA’s state presidents made the calculation at their annual meeting on Thursday that no one currently in the GOP presidential field -- or in the field of potential entrants -- offered a more favorable platform for its members.That's the context. Below the fold is my reaction.
It is hard to imagine anyone arising from the Republican field who will be better than Obama on public education. But that does not say very much. After all, the current trend among Republicans, as seen by many of their governors, is to attempt to smash teacher unions, to do away with tenure, and if possible, to totally undermine the legitimacy of public schools. That is not a very high bar to exceed.
There is another issue, which is recognition that Citizen's United will unleash corporate funds on behalf of the Republican nominee in a fashion that will require union activities to have to begin far earlier than might have been the case in previous cycles.
All that is well and good.
And in fairness to the administration, the stimulus did save many jobs in public education at a time when local and state governments were in desperate straights. It also did something for one year that had never been done before - it effectively fully funded the federal share of IDEA, (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), at the 40% share promised in the original Congressional commitment, but which had never before even reached 20%.
Yet at the same time in the same stimulus, Arne Duncan moved to impose on states several destructive approaches, often without the ideas being fully vetted by Congress. Here I refer to the aspects of Race to the Top (RttT) which include the four methods to which states must turn in cases of "failing" schools, one of which - firing all the teachers - both Duncan and Obama approved when it was applied in Central Falls RI despite the fact that the primary cause of low test scores was the conditions of poverty from which the students came. The scoring for RttT effectively required states to tie some portion of teacher evaluation to student test scores despite the fact that the tests were designed to measure student knowledge not what the teachers had done, and thus such a use of scores is not psychometrically appropriate - a point the three major professional organizations dealing with educational measurement (National Council for Measurement in Education, American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association) have made repeatedly. Also, even the administration acknowledged the low quality of the current generation of tests when it committed $350 million to the two consortia designing new generations of assessments. Yet scores on these tests were being used to classify schools as "failing" and were to be used as part of the evaluation of teachers.
Another mandate being imposed was that states lift caps on charter schools. What evidence there is about the performance of charters is largely limited to comparisons on the same flawed tests. Despite the fact that many charters can exclude harder to educate children (depends on the chartering law in the states) there is no evidence that charters as a whole perform better than the public schools from which they draw, with the most thorough study (the CREDO study run by Margaret Raymond at Stanford) showing that overall charters were about twice as likely to perform at a lower level than the equivalent public schools than they were to perform better. But even this data is problematic, because we are not comparing the performance of the same students, the students being tested are not randomly assigned to the schools, and we lack good controls on the influence of other factors.
It is worth noting that Democrats for Education Reform is a big advocate of charters. The likes of hedge fund operator Whitney Tilson have had some influence on this administration's educational policy. Some hedge funds have found ways to profit from charters. DEFR is willing to attack teachers unions and tenure.
Perhaps some of the state presidents supporting the decision this week hoped that if they got on board early in supporting the administration they might be able to have more influence in shaping policy as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind being the title of the most recent iteration of reauthorization) is still up for reauthorization. Sadly, in this I think they are very mistaken, and it is why I cannot approve of the decision made by the political action committee.
During the discussion of the $10 billion for saving the jobs of public employees - a separate piece of legislation that the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act that was the main stimulus spending - then House Appropriations Chair David Obey of Wisconsin sought to move less than $1 billion of unspent funds from Race to the Top in order to help pay for keeping teacher jobs. Arne Duncan opposed this and got the President to threaten to veto the entire bill if that provision remained in the legislation. I will note that the House Democratic Leadership all supported Obey's version of the bill, but the provision was not in the Senate version and the Conference Committee, under the veto threat, removed it. On education this administration did not even listen to its own allies in the House, and I think it is arrogant of the NEA to believe that having already given away its biggest single card - endorsement - it will therefore achieve any more leverage or influence in its dealings with this administration.
Let me be clear. I am in this piece not merely expressing my own distaste for what the NEA is doing. I am on enough education lists to have heard a far amount of anger and disgust at the decision. I am reading of long-time NEA members who are threatening to quit the union over this. I know of others who will no longer continue their union activity - for example, some who are building reps as am I wonder how they can continue in such a capacity when they so profoundly disagree with what the administration is doing on many matters of education yet their national union seems in a rush to judgment to foreclose any possible discussion.
Yes, in theory the representatives assembling this July could decide not to accept the recommendation. That is highly unlikely, and those meeting this week know it. Right now teachers are concentrating on end of year tasks, which for too many mean a serious focus on the aforementioned tests which have come to destructively dominate so much of what happens in our schools. Some schools will end within 3-4 weeks, leaving very little time to do any organizing against this decision.
Were I a member of that Representative Assembly, I would forcefully argue against its approval. That to me represents a willingness to affirm too much that is wrong in what this administration has done - and continues to do - in educational policy.
I have chosen to limit my role as a union activist to being lead rep for the teachers in my building. I did not run for office in our bargaining unit, the Prince George's County Education Association. Nor did I choose to run as a delegate for either the state convention (in October in Ocean City MD) or the national convention in July. There is only so much time and energy I can devote to union tasks without it detracting from my primary role as teacher for my students.
I also believe my voice is more effective in the roles I play in writing online about education (here and elsewhere) and in serving on the Executive Committee of the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action. There I add my voice to those of others at the grassroots who are trying to change the direction of educational policy in a more positive fashion than what we are seeing from this administration. Here I note that the Department of Education now seems concerned about us - we have had key figures from the Department reach out to some of our leadership in response to the criticisms some of us have put forward in our online writing, but as I noted in my recent open letter, Dear Secretary Duncan, the words of the Secretary of Education are so much in conflict with the policies his department has been propounding that I found myself asking him if he were bi-polar. In that piece, which if you check you will see has been very widely shared, I concluded like this:
There is an incredible resource that could totally transform our schools. It already exists. It is the knowledge and experience and dedication of many of our teachers. Your task as Secretary of Education should be seeking how you can harness resource, rather than antagonizing and alienating it.I think the NEA - and the AFT - should be withholding endorsement in order to get the administration to be willing to truly listen to what teachers have to say.
Are you willing to really listen, without preconceptions, without insisting on hanging on to ideas to which you may already have committed serious personal and political capital? If you are, you actually could start to help meaningfully transform American public education in a positive way - with the help and dedication of teachers and parents.
If not, then I fear you will succeed only in further damaging American pubic schools, to the detriment of our society, and in the process robbing our young people of the very richness of education to which they should be entitled.
So which will it be, Mr. Secretary? The next move is yours.
I fear that some in the leadership of the unions - both of them - are too concerned with wanting a seat at the table and not concerned enough with what is best for our schools and our students.
I worry that once the endorsement is finalized, this administration will have even less reason to listen to the voices of those of us involved in things like the Save Our Schools March, and will point to the endorsement as "proof" that teachers as a whole support their policies.
I'm not sure how much weight endorsing or not endorsing now can have. I only know that one does not give away leverage without getting something in return. That is piss-poor negotiations. Piss-poor negotiations is one of the things we have seen from this administration in some of its dealings with the Republicans in Congress. It is saddening to see that the leadership of the NEA is making the administration seem like strong negotiators in comparison.
This is my personal reaction. I do not claim that I am speaking for anyone else. Not officially.
I have, however, engaged in enough electronic exchanges in the past few days to know that some of the most committed educators in this country are unhappy at this decision by the leadership of the NEA.
In this, the union's leadership is NOT speaking for me, and I suspect is not speaking for many teachers.
Make of it what you will.