The Public Policy

Marriage of Convenience

Democrats and teachers unions are starting to love each less and less.

By 8.19.10

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Last week's passage of a school district bailout bill should have elicited a joyful noise from Democrats and their allies, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. After all, by coming up with $10 billion in subsidies to help school districts avoid laying off 160,000 teachers (or just 2.6 percent of the nation's 6.2 million school employees), congressional Democrats have now guaranteed that the nation's two largest teachers' unions will deploy their considerable war chests ($24 million so far during this election cycle) and rank-and-file members to help Democrats stave off losses in November and keep control of Congress.

But for Democrats and teachers unions, the so-called Edujobs bill is one more reminder that their long and fruitful alliance isn't what it used to be. The fact that the original estimate of up to 300,000 layoffs has dwindled by half -- thanks to other cost-saving measures many school districts came up with -- has given congressional Republicans more opportunities to accuse Democrats of fiscal profligacy and of betraying the very school reform measures they have championed over the past two years. Declared Minnesota Rep. John Kline (who may end up becoming House Education and Labor Committee Chairman after November): "Spending another $10 billion we do not have will not improve public education or protect the very best teachers."

If anything, Edujobs may have helped congressional Democrats do what Republicans couldn't succeed in achieving: furthering the divide within its ranks. By siding with the NEA and AFT, congressional Democrats displeased other activists within the party -- especially centrist Democrat school reformers who are now-ascendant within Democratic Party politics and who long opposed the bailout. Meanwhile, Moveon.org-style progressives and anti-poverty groups were displeased that the teachers unions' walk-around money was funded by diverting a $12 billion increase from the federal Food Stamps budget.

The fact that these Food Stamps cut won't actually happen until 2013 (and may not even happen at all if Democrats keep control of Congress) and that this funding diversion originated with their friends within the Obama administration isn't exactly placating the progressives. School reform Democrats have meanwhile proceeded to further embarrass their congressional allies. Proclaimed Kati Haycock, whose Education Trust is one of the leading think tanks among Democrat school reformers: "I challenge any who support [Edujobs] to feed their own children on $4.50 a day."

The Edujobs debacle is, without question, just another example of the self-immolation in which congressional Democrats have engaged over the past two years. From going along with then-President George W. Bush in 2008 to create the Troubled Asset Relief Program (to bail out Wall Street from its lack of risk discipline) to supporting President Barack Obama's healthcare reform plan, congressional Democrats have managed to anger voters. The fact that they haven't even passed much of their own agenda has also left them with lackluster support among their own allies. Bailing out school districts on behalf of the NEA and AFT was going to do little to salve those self-inflicted political wounds. In fact, it may have made matters worse. 

IF EDUJOBS HASN'T EXACTLY proven to be a boon for Democrats, it offers even less for the NEA and AFT. Although school districts will now get at least $62,500 for every teacher they decide to keep on their payrolls, it's far less than the $25 billion for which the two unions initially lobbied. More importantly, they didn't manage to achieve their overarching goal: Slowing down (if not killing outright) President Obama's efforts to reform American public education -- his singular success so far while in office. Although Obama isn't exactly calling for anything truly revolutionary -- such as ending school districts -- the president's support for expanding charter schools, ending traditional teacher compensation, and overhauling how teachers are evaluated hasn't been music to the ears of teachers union presidents.

Although House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey managed to pass an earlier version of Edujobs that had siphoned $800 million from Obama's Race to the Top effort and other reforms, it fell apart after Obama threatened to veto the move (along with an entire funding package for continuing the War in Afghanistan). Efforts by the NEA and AFT (along with their allies in traditional public education) to force Obama to back down from school reform had little effect.

If anything, Obama has taken even bolder steps on school reform. A week after the president signed Edujobs into law, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan publicly backed a Los Angeles Times exposé that evaluated the (often abysmal) performance of Los Angeles School District teachers based on student test score data. While the boss of the AFT's L.A. local, education commentators and even otherwise hardcore school reformers (such as resident American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick Hess) harshly criticized the Times for naming names, Duncan declared that publishing teacher evaluations would help schools "recognize" and "learn from" high-quality teachers.

This shouldn't surprise the NEA or AFT. Three decades of efforts to overhaul urban school districts -- along with the ascent of the teacher quality movement, a part of the school reform movement that has long attracted socially minded Democrats -- has fostered a wing of the party whose skepticism about teachers unions is as strong as it is among conservatives. These Democrats were the driving forces of Obama's successful presidential campaign. Along with his own school reform minded tendencies, the fact that the NEA and AFT backed Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination has essentially given the Obama a free hand in dealing with the union.

Given their longstanding alliance with Democrats at the national level -- and the lack of allies among Republicans -- the NEA and AFT have nowhere else to go. And Edujobs isn't exactly going to stave off the reckoning they will face as cash-strapped states -- facing at least $600 billion in pension deficits and unfunded liabilities -- begin restructuring the lavish retirement and compensation deals struck over the past five decades.

By the time Obama leaves office, Democrats and teachers unions may find themselves in political divorce court.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.