The Obama Watch

No Democrat Left Behind

Except for the teacher union hardliners who are disappointed by Arne Duncan's nomination as education secretary.

By 12.17.08

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There wasn't much celebration yesterday for Barack Obama's nomination of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education from either the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten (who praised Duncan for helping "students with the greatest needs") or from National Education Association honcho Van Roekel (who said nothing at all). The unions, long used to getting their way with Democratic Party leaders, were more disappointed that their favorite pick -- Obama adviser and No Child Left Behind Act critic Linda Darling-Hammond -- didn't get the nod.

But the real celebration came from another corner of the Democratic National Committee -- the motley crew of centrist city officials and liberal activists who have long-championed (and helped pass) No Child in the first place. Declared former Daily News reporter, Joe Williams, who runs the New York-based Democrats For Education Reform: "[Duncan] will lead the charge of breaking the existing ideological and political gridlock to promote new, innovative and experimental ideas in education."

Since taking over the nation's third-largest school district seven years ago, Duncan has been successful in improving Chicago's woeful graduation rate (from 47 percent for the Class of 2001 to 55 percent percent for the Class of 2007) and expanding school choice by authorizing more than 76 charter schools. But his record fares poorly versus that of such rivals for the job as Joel Klein, the former Clinton appointee who won acclaim (and the ire of teacher union bosses everywhere) for overhauling the once-dysfunctional New York City school system. Chicago's contract with its AFT local, for one, is notorious for allowing teachers to devote eight fewer weeks a school year to instructing students (and fewer opportunities for improving student achievement) than teachers in other large urban districts.

But Duncan, an Obama pal for the past two decades, became the most-likely choice for the president-elect after reformers circulated memos and made statements supporting his candidacy and publicly campaigning against Darling-Hammond, who once complained in the Nation that No Child stood for "No Child Left Untested" and "No School Board Left Standing."

The fact that Duncan or Klein were considered at all is one more sign for teachers unions -- long among the most reliable of activists within the party -- that they can no longer count on Democrats for unquestioned support. They must now wrangle with school reformers more concerned with improving the quality of education for the poor, economic development and reviving urban communities than with continuing with public education's culture of mediocrity. This guarantees an increasingly fierce intra-party feud over reauthorizing No Child and an expansion of school choice options. And Obama may have to take more forceful -- and less teacher union-friendly -- stances on the direction of public education.

THE DEMOCRAT ACTIVISTS are hardly a monolithic group. On one side are activists such as Steve Barr, a cofounder of Rock the Vote and a fan of unions whose Green Dot charter schools are a thorn in the side of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Then there is Andrew Rotherham, the cofounder of the Education Sector, a Beltway think tank which is one of the intellectual lynchpins of the school reform movement.

These Democrats are among the most innovative players on the education scene. Michael Feinberg and Dave Levin cofounded the Knowledge Is Power Program, the nation's most-successful chain of charter schools and a poster child for how schools can improve the academic performance of underachieving poor students. Paul Vallas served as the first chief executive of Chicago Public Schools after its takeover by Mayor Richard Daley, sowing the seeds for successor Duncan's achievements. He is now a key player in the nation's biggest school reform experiment – the replacement of New Orleans' abysmal pre-Hurricane Katrina school system with an array of traditional public and charter schools.

The most famous of late is Michelle Rhee, now in charge of overhauling Washington, D.C.'s public school system. A product of Teach For America -- which is famed for training bright collegians to work in the nation's worst urban school systems -- and founder of one of its spin-offs, Rhee is causing consternation for both the AFT and its Beltway local with plans to subject teachers to the kind of performance management and evaluation typically found in the private sector. Despite her criticism of Obama for his stance on No Child (and because one of his advisers works on her staff), Obama called her "a wonderful new superintendent."

As with their colleagues in conservative and (occasionally) libertarian circles, the Democrat reformers prefer the prescription of standardized tests, stronger curriculum standards, consequences for academic underachievement and school choice options that the NEA and AFT generally oppose. They are often even more fervent in challenging the work rules and traditional seniority- and degree-based compensation systems that have made teaching the one profession most-insulated from performance management. Rhee, in particular, told Time magazine, "If the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job."

What makes them influential is their base of support. Among their big-named financial backers is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the nonprofit cofounded by the Microsoft billionaire. This decade, Gates has pumped some of its $35 billion in assets into the school reform movement -- including the development of an advisory service for grassroots activists and school officials looking to overhaul teacher contracts. Another group, the Broad Foundation, funds programs that train corporate executives aspiring to become school superintendents. In September, it teamed up with school systems in New York, Chicago, and Washington to start a research center aimed at determining how teacher training and organizational changes affect student performance.

AS INFLUENTIAL AS THEY ARE, the reformers are still small potatoes compared to teachers unions. The NEA and AFT have long used their base of four million rank-and-file teachers and deep pockets to help Democrats mount presidential and congressional races even as unions in the private sector fell into secular decline. At the local level, the union locals helped nurture and sustain city hall political regimes, most notably, the machine of disgraced former Washington Mayor Marion Barry.

But as the NEA and AFT wielded their muscle within the more-liberal Democratic leadership of the 1980s, changes in the party's grassroots would weak their influence.

Amid concerns in the 1970s and 1980s that public schools performance was in decline, centrist southern Democrat governors such as Jim Hunt of North Carolina banded together with chambers of commerce to successfully develop standardized tests and curriculum standards. By 1992, they had become ascendant in the Democratic Party with the election of one of those reformers, Bill Clinton to the presidency. A year later, he had successfully revamped the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to include an array of accountability measures that would later be improved upon by No Child. Meanwhile Democrat mayors, frustrated with the woeful public schools that helped fuel middle-class flight to suburbia, began successful campaigns to take over districts (as in the case of Daley) or, as in the case of former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson and his ex-colleague in Milwaukee, John Norquist, launch school choice initiatives.

Meanwhile a younger generation of Democrats not versed in the languages of union solidarity, race-baiting and liberal appeals to urban renewal came into the party. Some even had spent time in classrooms after being trained by Teach For America and other groups -- and came away dismayed with the tolerance of incompetent teachers. They were further galvanized in support of school reform by the passage of No Child, which was co-authored by Sen. Ted Kennedy, the star of the Democratic Party's liberal wing.

The behind-the-scenes battle between reformers and teachers unions finally came to the fore in August during the Democratic National Convention. There, school reform-minded mayors such as Washington's Adrian Fenty and Cory Booker took aim at the NEA and AFT for their defense of "insane work rules." The sparring will get even nastier after Obama takes office next month. The reauthorization of No Child, a key priority for school reformers will be fought bitterly by the NEA and AFT, along with suburban school officials and more regulation-phobic elements of the Republican Party. Fights over additional funding for charter schools -- a priority for both Obama and Duncan -- will also be in the cards.

All in all, the intra-party battle has finally made Democrat Party politics something it hasn't been since the 1968 Chicago convention: Incredibly interesting.

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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.