There are plenty of canyons running between the Democrats at this week’s convention. The left is angry at President Obama for selling them out on a raft of issues. The Blue Dogs (what’s left of them) are glancing uneasily toward the election calendar. And of course that tattered emblem of Democrat disunity, Bill Clinton, is on the speakers’ list.
But there’s something else threatening to disrupt the Democrat hive mind. As Jon Ward reported at the Huffington Post, convention-goers were treated to a special screening of the movie Won’t Back Down. The film, which stars Maggie Gyllenhall and Viola Davis, is about a single mother who tries to reform her daughter’s dismal public school. The villain is the obstructionist teachers union. It promotes “parent triggers,” which allow parents to vote to overhaul schools.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, fired off a letter calling the film “divisive” and saying it doesn’t focus on “real parent empowerment.” (And if anyone knows “real parent empowerment,” it’s the stridently anti-school-choice Weingarten.)
But her letter ignores the elephant in the rubber room: Won’t Back Down director Daniel Barnz is a Democrat. For that matter, so is reform hero Michelle Rhee and Davis Guggenheim of Waiting for Superman fame. All three have issued a call to arms over education that transcends party lines. The reality of America’s public schools is finally cracking through the liberal eggshell.
At the state level, Democrat governors and mayors, wrangling with drained budgets, are battling the education establishment. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick backed a law that tied teacher layoffs primarily to performance rather than seniority. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also took on the unions over evaluations and declared, “It’s this simple: It’s not about the adults; it is about the children.” And Mayor Rahm Emanuel cranked up his famous pugnacity after the Chicago Teachers Union refused to budge on compensation and benefits issues.
That might seem like small comfort to school reformers. And it should. Most of the clashes between unions and Democrat state officials have been waged out of necessity. Governors and mayors must balance their budgets; organized labor won’t give an inch.
But given the Democratic Party’s fundraising, it’s a miracle to see party leaders taking on the teachers unions at all. The third-largest contributor to Democrats in 2010, and the fifth-largest contributor overall, was the National Education Association (NEA), which spent $40 million to push back the Republican tide. Add in contributions by AFSCME and the SEIU and the three titans of organized labor spent $171.5 million in 2010, more than the dreaded U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads combined.
The Democrats owe the NEA. If not for it, the Republican sweep might have been even wider.
And yet many Democrats turned around and fought back against Big Education’s intransigence. It’s created an uneasy imbalance and it’s sowing discord among the union rank-and-file. The party’s apple-polishers at the NEA voted to endorse Barack Obama last year. But the vote count was 72% in favor; a step down from 2008 when 80% of delegates endorsed Obama, and the vote twelve years ago when 90% supported Al Gore.
This is the same Barack Obama who made the heinous decision to shut down the Washington, D.C. school voucher program. But even he’s committed apostasies that irked the unions.
So why are some progressives changing their tune? Well, it’s not as if the unions have anywhere else to go. Mitt Romney’s education plan requires states to offer school choice and many Republicans want to eliminate the bureaucratic wreck that is the Department of Education. Democrats must wager that they can nip at the NEA without losing its support.
But more importantly, the problem with public schools has become impossible to ignore. Interest-group liberalism requires the left to support the teachers unions. But more and more, that’s put Democrats in conflict with inner-city students who need vouchers for a shot at even a passable education. Confronted with the evidence, some progressives are finally siding with the students.
Eventually education may become one of those issues, like the Second Amendment, on which Republicans extract an all-out surrender. At this year’s Republican National Convention, Condoleezza Rice declared that education is the civil rights movement of our era. Progressives pride themselves on being civil rights geniuses. Do they really want to be on the wrong side of history here?
Until they answer that question, there’s still plenty of hysteria to go around. A smattering of protesters showed up when Won’t Back Down was shown at the Democratic Convention. Confirming that the progressive bestiary is running out of monsters, one left-wing blogger tried to tie the movie to Bain Capital. Randi Weingarten is still doing an elaborate dance, talking up reforms while simultaneously making sure nothing meaningful gets done.
But it’s becoming clear that unions have overplayed their hand. Mitt Romney should press the advantage when he gets into office. Perhaps then we can finally energize our classrooms and empty the rubber rooms.