One thing is perfectly clear after Tuesday’s midterm elections: The long-and-fruitful relationship between Democrats and teachers unions is no longer mutually beneficial.
Congressional Democrats angered centrist school reformers, MoveOn.org-style progressives, and other party activists in August when they voted to ladle $10 billion in federal subsidies (funded from future cuts to the Food Stamp program) to school districts in order to stave off layoffs of 160,000 teachers (or just 2.6 percent of the nation’s 6.2 million school employees). In turn, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers poured more than $40 million of their hefty campaign war chests (including more than $15 million by the NEA in the last weeks of the election season alone) to help the Democrats keep full control of Congress.
It didn’t work. Most of the endangered Democrat congressmen backed heavily by the NEA alone — including Tom Perriello in Virginia and Nevada’s Dina Titus — were still tossed out; only the victories of wishy-washy Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (who was backed with $1.4 million of the NEA’s largesse) and soon-to-be-minority leader Harry Reid staved off a full shellacking. The biggest hits came in state races as Republicans captured full control of 19 statehouses — including those in once-teachers union friendly states such as Indiana and Michigan — and teachers union-supportive governors in Pennsylvania and other states were replaced with new chief executives less to their liking.
The fact that NEA and AFT efforts yielded little fruit is one more sign to Democrats that their alliance with the unions — already frayed over President Barack Obama’s school reform initiatives — is no longer of much value. Although education wasn’t anything close to the defining electoral issue school reformers thought it would (and should) be, Obama’s efforts to expand charter schools and improve teacher talent were the one aspect of his agenda that actually found favor with voters of all stripes. One could dare say if Obama only focused on education (and stayed away from passing healthcare reform), congressional Democrats would have actually kept seats and avoided the political carnage they suffered within the past year.
For the NEA and the AFT, there is at least one silver lining. They may benefit from the ascent of Minnesota Congressman John Kline to the chairmanship of the House Education and Labor Committee. Like the NEA and AFT, the suburban Minneapolis representative is a critic of the No Child Left Behind Act and Obama’s Race to the Top initiative to expand charter schools and subject teachers to private-sector style performance management; he may unintentionally help the unions frustrate President Obama’s school reform agenda.
But the loss of reliable teacher union supporters on the House panel — including Titus, New Hampshire’s Carol Shea-Porter and Joe Sestak (who lost to Pat Toomey in the race to replace Arlen Specter) — means that school reformers within the Democratic base (including Colorado Congressman Jared Polis) will have more sway over the party’s education agenda. It may also give George Miller, the congressional Democrats’ leading policy overlord on education (and co-architect of No Child) more leeway in breaking ranks with the two unions.
The fact that centrist and progressive Democrats think that improving the quality of teachers is as critical a civil rights issue as integration was during the 1960s also means a long-term break is coming. The NEA and the AFT are the most obstinate opponents of teacher quality reform efforts such developing alternative teacher training programs — especially Teach For America, a vanguard of the school reform movement — and using student performance data to evaluate teacher performance. Last month, the Economic Policy Institute — a think-tank cofounded by Community Reinvestment Act author Robert Kuttner that has benefited from more than $1.3 million in NEA largesse — issued a petition against stronger teacher performance management.
At the state level — where the NEA and AFT have traditionally wielded even more clout — the damage couldn’t come at a worse time. President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative (along with the accountability measures contained within the No Child Left Behind Act) has given school reform-minded governors of both parties cover to expand charter schools (the nation’s most-successful form of school choice), and allow the use of student test score data in evaluating teacher performance. Although the NEA and AFT have given some dollars to statehouse Republicans — most notably North Dakota Governor (and now senator-elect) John Hoeven — their ties to GOP lawmakers are still much weaker. Expect efforts to enact performance pay plans and eliminate tenure in some of those states; this includes Florida, where teachers’ union savior Charlie Crist will be replaced by the less-supportive Rick Scott.
Meanwhile the NEA and AFT face a longer-term threat to their influence — the $1 trillion in lavish public pensions and retired teacher healthcare benefits that are now pressuring state budgets. New Jersey, Vermont and even New York State took small steps to force rank-and-file teachers to contribute more to their retiree benefits and retire at ages more in line with what is acceptable in the private sector. More steps will come by 2018, when states have to figure out ways to finance increasingly underfunded pensions for teachers and other state workers.
Considering that the traditional system of near-lifetime employment, degree- and salary-based pay scales and seniority privileges have done little to improve the nation’s woeful public schools or attract talented people into teaching, the NEA and AFT will have difficulty defending the status quo.
Democrats and teachers unions may soon be looking for new partners.