Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Obama's truce with teachers

Obama's truce with teachers
By: Kendra Marr
August 22, 2010 05:00 PM EDT
In the past few weeks, President Barack Obama delivered two major speeches touting education reforms. He invited teachers to the Rose Garden and pushed the House to pass an emergency spending bill saving thousands of school jobs. This week, his education chief is traveling on a cross-country bus tour to highlight school success stories.

“Teachers,” Obama said in Ohio Wednesday, “are the single most important ingredient in the education system.”

The White House says it’s a back-to-school message that fits squarely into the president’s plan for economic recovery, stressing the role of educators in shaping a competitive American work force.

But all this apple-polishing hasn’t gone unnoticed by teachers unions, which have had a rocky relationship with the White House from the start over Obama’s unflinching support for reforms that unions view as an affront. After 18 months of frosty relations that at times bordered on outright hostility, it seems that Obama has called a truce — one that several education experts noted comes just in time for the midterm elections, when teachers unions can be a powerful Democratic ally.



Education Secretary Arne Duncan disputed that there’s any political motivation. “This is part of that continued outreach,” he told POLITICO. “That’s the furthest thing from our mind.”

Yet, as Obama’s outreach has continued, tensions have simmered down.

“In the last month, there’s been a shift in tone,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. Obama’s recent speeches, she said, have “made it clear that his strategies were not about firing teachers.”

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel — whose group’s recent convention included several speakers calling for Duncan to resign — downplays the notion of a major mood swing, but said that Obama’s recent pro-teacher language has been appreciated.

“He’s recognizing that the very thing he cares most deeply about can’t happen without the involvement and collaboration of those people who are teaching,” Van Roekel said. “I like the message he’s sending.”

The politics of education can be as complex as multivariable calculus.

Obama and Duncan have presided over historic increases in school financing and hastened changes, such as new teacher evaluation systems in states and school districts, often with the cooperation of local unions. At the same time, this Democratic president has aggressively confronted teachers unions with a spate of reforms out of a Republican playbook: more charter schools, merit pay for teachers and firing educators in failing schools.

Nationwide outrage among teachers exploded in March when both Obama and Duncan justified the mass firings of educators at a failing Rhode Island school. (Teachers ultimately kept their jobs in a concession deal.)

“The administration has strong reformist credentials, but this went way too far for many people,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who studies teachers unions. “I think the average American who worries about getting laid off unfairly could relate to the teachers.”

Just last month, delegates at the NEA convention took a position of “no confidence” on Race to the Top, the administration’s multi-billion-dollar sweepstakes to encourage schools to adopt Obama-backed policies. “Today, our members face the most anti-educator, anti-union, anti-student environment I have ever experienced,” Van Roekel told thousands of attendees.

But the union president has since dialed it back. “Everyone assumed I was only talking about the Obama administration,” he told POLITICO. “I was talking about states, too.”

Duncan expects to join Van Roekel in Albany, N.Y., as he travels on his bus tour at the end of the month. The secretary will also drive through Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia.

Teachers have long been among the foot soldiers of the Democratic Party. For decades, they’ve walked precincts, knocked on doors and staffed phone banks for candidates.

And while Duncan contests the idea that the administration is pacifying teachers unions before midterms, improved relations are important. The two national teachers unions’ combined 4.6 million members spent tens of millions of dollars to help elect Obama and other candidates in 2008.

“The danger is not that they go help Republicans but, rather, that they sit on their hands and don’t get involved in the election,” Kahlenberg said. “And that would be a disaster for Democrats.”

“Given the stakes on the table in November and given there’s a number of things they can agree on together, they’re in this delicate dance of trying to make it work,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Duncan, who visited 39 states last year, said he will use his bus trip to listen to suggestions and complaints about all of the administration’s programs, including its crown jewel, Race to the Top.

“We’ll spend a lot of time talking to teachers,” Duncan said. “What’s working? What’s not? And how can we help?”

“The best ideas in education are never going to come from me. They never come from Washington,” said Duncan, who is planning events with both top union leaders throughout the year. “We can’t do enough to support great, great teachers.”

Holding an informal town hall in an Ohio family’s backyard, Obama made his own promise to strengthen science and math education, as well as to forge new partnerships between community colleges and businesses.

“What we need to do is tailor people’s education so that they are linked up with businesses who say, we need this many engineers, or we need this kind of technical training,” he said.

Over the next few months, the Education Department is injecting up to $20 billion into the nation’s education system, a chunk of which aids reforms chasing the president’s goal of leading the world in college graduates by 2020.

“Education is the economic issue of our time,” Obama told the University of Texas at Austin on Aug. 9. “It’s an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who’ve never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have gone to college. Education is an economic issue when nearly eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade. Education is an economic issue when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that countries that out-educate us today, they will out-compete us tomorrow.”

The president will continue to talk up his education reforms, like cutting out the middleman for student loans, White House officials said. Duncan aims to disburse a $10 billion education jobs fund over two weeks. And the Education Department will soon release federal dollars for the winners of Race to the Top and other grant programs.

Next up: Congress will take on Obama’s blueprint for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law. While Obama’s proposal maintains the spirit of the Bush-era annual testing and data-driven accountability, it adds resources and flexibility to help students prepare for college.

Already, conflict is beginning to bubble up, though Democrats express confidence they can get bipartisan support.

Leaders of the two national teachers unions flanked and applauded Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), a member of the Education and Labor Committee, as she unveiled her own framework in May giving individual districts the power to decide how to fix schools, a measure she believes will stop the teacher blame game. “If teachers really felt like input was valued and could be implemented, I think we’d see a huge difference in our schools,” she told POLITICO.

And a handful of civil rights groups have joined teachers unions in calling for more equity and better initiatives to close the achievement gap.

“We need to work through the details. But those details can’t mask our overall united front,” Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) told POLITICO. “This is the best chance in 50 years to get constructive federal involvement in moving our schools forward.”
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