School reformers across the nation thought they had scored a victory in their efforts to weed out ineffective teachers last year in New York. Then-governor Eliot Spitzer convinced legislators to enact a law requiring new teachers seeking tenure to prove that they successfully use standardized test scores and other forms of student performance data in shaping their classroom instruction.
Even sweeter, the law was passed over the objections of the state’s largest public employees union, the United Teachers — an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — and its largest local, New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, which has battled the much-lauded school reform efforts of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
A year later, reformers watched in dismay as the UFT and United Teachers struck back, convincing the legislature and Spitzer’s successor, David Paterson, to strike the law off the books without so much as a committee hearing. Now the Empire States joins Indiana as one of the only two states that explicitly ban the use of student test data in evaluations, making harder for schools to accurately assess teacher performance.
“It is nothing more than a special interest protection for the few teachers who shouldn’t get an automatic lifetime appointment to the classroom,” complained Bloomberg. His plan to use test data in evaluating new teachers had been thwarted.
This was just the latest defeat for school reformers. They also lost a battle in Idaho to develop a teacher performance pay plan and have seen recommendations made by an education panel in California convened by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger almost summarily ignored.
Such reversals show that the real clashes over the direction of America’s public schools won’t take place in the corridors of Congress, but in the halls of the nation’s state capitals, where the affiliates of the NEA and AFT are well-positioned to advocate for their vision of education.
WHILE THE No Child Left Behind Act, with its accountability rules, may foster the perception that education policymaking has moved from local school districts to the federal government, the reality is different. States continue to be the key movers in shaping the direction of schools.
Since the 1970s, funding equity lawsuits, along with property tax reforms such as California’s Proposition 13, have led to state budgets accounting for the largest single source of school funding. States now supply 47 percent of all education dollars.
States also govern collective bargaining between teachers unions and school districts, since the federal government does not require governments to engage in collective bargaining. More importantly, states also set the framework for the compensation teachers get and the conditions under which they work through such measures as class-size reduction initiatives.
The standards-and-accountability movement which gave birth to No Child began with governors and chambers of commerce in states such as Tennessee, which in the 1980s, rolled out an array of standardized tests and consequences for school failure. Those reforms were ultimately embraced by the federal government thanks to presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both of whom, remember, were governors who won acclaim for their school initiatives.
No Child itself gives much leeway to states when it comes to interpreting how to meet requirements such as assuring that all teachers are “highly qualified” for instruction. States may be required to improve graduation rates and test scores, but the federal government allows them to develop their own solutions — or more often, game the system — in order to reach those goals
A FEW SCHOOL REFORM groups such as Achieve Inc., a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that works with states on improving the quality of curricula and aligning standardized tests to them, recognize that reality.
Most, however, ignore statehouses, focusing on Beltway arguments over such matters as the reauthorization of No Child. Teachers unions, on the other hand, have sensibly kept their eyes on the states to their benefit.
Teachers unions are particularly suited to statehouse lobbying. Armed with large memberships — who contribute mightily to their coffers and form a potent lobbying force — and aided by their success in gaining collective bargaining rights, teachers unions are often the biggest spenders when it comes to lobbying.
The fact that these unions are often the largest donors to state legislative campaigns of both Democrats and Republicans — as compared to the Democrat-only spending by the national unions — also gives them extraordinary access. The father of New York’s current governor — a player in state Democratic politics — lobbies on behalf of UFT, while Joseph Bruno, the state senate’s Republican majority leader, has benefited from the state union’s largesse.
Also aiding their efforts: The general skepticism of rank-and-file teachers, and more importantly, suburban parents, who don’t want themselves or their children to bear the costs of higher standards through flunked tests and more homework. All of this makes teachers unions effective at fighting back efforts by reformers to shake up the status quo.
THE WOULD-BE REFORMERS themselves, even those who should know better such as former California assembly speaker-turned-Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, fail to consider any of this.
Villaraigosa’s 2006 proposal to take over Los Angeles Unified may have won over parents and activists long-frustrated with its academic and fiscal failure. But his plan ran headlong into the opposition of the UTLA, which used its clout at the legislature, rallied mayors in other cities in which LA Unified operates, and used the courts to weaken and, finally, defeat, his effort.
School reform advocates, especially those advocating exclusively at the national level, may want to devote more time to lobbying state policymakers if they want lasting success. This would likely mean teaming up with chambers of commerce, who have been able to rally their business memberships to get some school reform measures passed. Such ties would offer school reformers the muscle they need and offer business groups the intellectual caliber most often lack.
Advocates should also think about how to do a better job of selling their prescriptions to suburban parents, whose cozy relationships with teachers often makes them willing supporters of union goals. Hoping in federal intervention alone will only allow the unions to win the most important fights.