Teachers and Democrats Head for Divorce

Shamus Cooke
It’s best to quickly recognize the red flags in any failing relationship. This way, ties can be severed rather than allow things to linger forever in dysfunction. For Democrats and teachers’ unions, the writing is on the wall. The two are simply going in opposite directions. 

The Democrats continue on the road to corporate-inspired charter schools, using the tried and true method of “stronger teacher evaluations” to undermine “underperforming” schools and teachers — thus opening the door wide to private charter schools with their non-union workforce.

Obama’s Race to the Top education “reform” has enshrined these odious goals into government policy, and the once love-struck teachers’ unions have hastily exited the honeymoon stage with the Obama administration, heading toward a quick divorce. 

Rank and file teachers have already quit the Obama administration, and by extension the Democrats as a whole. Evidence of this was on display during the national conventions of the two largest teacher unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). 

The NEA convention voted in favor of a resolution of “no confidence” in Obama’s Race to the Top program, essentially voting “no confidence” in the Obama administration. The AFT convention was not allowed to vote on a similar resolution, but the rank and file applauded loudest when the AFT President, Randi Weingarten, spoke about the betrayal of the Obama administration. The NEA did not invite Obama administration officials to the convention, because, according to The New York Times, “…union officials feared that [Obama] administration speakers would face heckling.” (July 4, 2010).

The president of the NEA, Dennis Van Roekel, summarized teacher’s experience with the Obama administration: 

 “Today our members face the most anti-educator, anti-union, anti-student environment I have ever experienced.” This is an extraordinary statement. Not only is it true, but it highlights that President Obama is more anti-teacher than was President Bush, who introduced the anti-teacher No Child Left Behind. 

In fact, the situation for teachers is worse than either union president is willing to say. State budget crises are destroying the funding for public education and teachers are being laid-off by the thousands, while others accept wage freezes, larger classes, and other concessions. 

On top of this, a flood of new state laws around the country is being implemented by Democrats and Republicans “working together” in accordance with Obama’s Race to the Top campaign. The New York Times explains: 

“…with states across the nation facing huge budget shortfalls, governors, legislators, mayors and educators in about three dozen states have been working to win Race to the Top money by bringing their school policies in line with President Obama’s education agenda.” (May 31, 2010).

The barrage of new state laws makes it easier for states to create private charter schools — at the expense of public education — and to fire union teachers (based on their students’ test scores). Job security and public education are both under massive attack. 

On July 23rd, 241 teachers were fired in Washington D.C., based on their student’s test scores. Examples like this are now becoming common. If unions cannot prevent these mass firings from happening, their power becomes decimated. 

But this frontal assault is not being labeled as such by many teacher union officials. Some union leaders are minimizing the destruction caused by the Obama administration, simply referring to his policies as “misguided” or “flawed,” rather than condemning the Democrats as “blatantly anti-union” or “destructive to public education.”

This is because many union leaders are deathly afraid of ending their co-dependent relationship with the Democrats, no matter what level of domestic violence occurs. These union officials make excuses for the Democrats, or justify their cooperation with the politicians, by claiming that the union needs “a seat at the table.” But at this table teachers are on the menu, and the Democrats are only willing to listen to union advice as to how the teachers are best served — grilled, roasted, skewered.

A big test will come this November, when mid-term elections will take place all over the country. Will teachers’ unions use funds and resources to help elect Democrats, after tens of millions were wasted to elect Obama and his Race to the Top cohorts in Congress? 

Some union leaders will argue, “Yes, we will support good Democrats.” Fair enough, but a good Democrat is not someone that simply says, “I support unions and teachers.” A necessary condition for teachers’ unions to support politicians must be that they condemn Obama’s Race to the Top, while declaring allegiance to the job security of teachers, and thus they must refuse to cooperate with the corporate-inspired scheme to make teachers’ evaluations based on students test scores, so as to create more charter schools.

Also, politicians who are given union support must have a plan to fully fund public education and reject the current trend of cutting funds to education and social services, using budget deficits as an excuse. Raising taxes on the rich and corporations — as Oregon did — is one way for teachers to survive the state budget crises. 

Ultimately, teachers’ unions need to officially declare their defunct relationship with the Democrats is “over” and work with politically independent labor candidates, with a future eye towards creating a union-led political party that would represent the interests of all working people. 

About the Author

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action. He can be reached atportland@workerscompass.org.

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action. He can be reached at portland@workerscompass.org