Thursday, August 28, 2008

Disunity over unions

Most of the images and words flowing out of Denver this week have been predictable, even boring. But one story stood out from the rest, in terms of what it potentially means for the future of American education.

The Rocky Mountain News reported Monday that a divorce may be in the offing between some Democrats and the teachers’ unions, whose marriage has been among the most stable in modern American politics. At an event at the Denver Art Museum on the day before delegates began trying to unify behind a single candidate and a coherent message, there was disunity over unions, with some in the party saying they've become a major impediment to improvement and innovation in public education.

Here’s how The Rocky reported it:

"An eclectic mix of Democratic wunderkinds, tough-talking education reformers and one elder statesman - former Gov. Roy Romer - are challenging their party to step away from teachers unions and return to fighting for the educational rights of poor and minority children.

"It is a battle for the heart of the Democratic Party," said Corey Booker, the 39-year-old rising star mayor of Newark, N.J. "We have been wrong in education," Booker said of his party and its alliances with teachers unions that put adults before children. "It's time to get right."

Booker was among those who appeared Sunday at the Denver Art Museum to challenge the Democratic Party to reconsider its course on education.

In references sometimes veiled and sometimes blunt, they tackled the party's often- cozy relationship with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which typically support - financially and otherwise - Democratic candidates.

"The Democratic Party is supposed to look out for poor and minority kids," said Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. "That's not the dynamic today," said Rhee, who is battling her city's union over a plan to overhaul teacher pay.

The rousing rhetoric shocked John Wilson, executive director of the NEA. "I was absolutely stunned at the level of union-bashing," Wilson said. "I think leaders who wish to provide a vision and a plan for improving our schools undermine themselves by alienating the teachers . . . who have to carry out that plan."

Those behind the "Ed Challenge for Change" aren’t proposing anything too radical, in my view. The plan, reports The Rocky, includes universal access to preschool, extended school days and school years and – here’s where they run afoul of anti-school choice teachers’ unions – more access to charter schools. But that’s the point: The unions are so reflexively opposed to almost any change or reform, and so vicious in attacking those who do support change, that they are now even alienating erstwhile allies.

Not a good sign for a party seeking unity, perhaps. But for Americans who rank better education as a top national priority, and for teachers who don’t walk in lockstep with unions on politics and policy, this rift can only be seen as a hopeful and welcome development.

Noting the oddity of seeing union-bashing at a DNC, one fellow blogger asked, "Isn't this one of the seven signs of the Apocalypse"?

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