Last summer, presidential candidate Barack Obama addressed the National Education Association’s annual convention, by way of video stream projected onto
a big screen. A YouTube version of the speech, with reaction shots of the massive audience of teachers union delegates, was posted soon after the July 5 event. It’s still up, if you’re curious. It has surprises. It gave me some hope.
The National Education Association, together with its smaller sister organization, the American Federation of Teachers, represents arguably the single largest Democratic voting bloc in the country. Historically, Democratic candidates have fawned over the NEA without reservation.
The Clintons drove me nuts with their tight relations with the teachers unions. I understand that politicians have to get enough votes to be elected before they can be the marvelous leaders they claim they will be. But again, historically the Democratic pols, especially in heavily unionized states, woo the union votes and later find themselves doing the unions’ bidding even if it ill-serves the kids.
Obama began his July speech with a list of education problems. He lamented that 6 million kids read below grade level, and that only 20 percent of our students are prepared to take college-level math, English and science. I wondered who he held responsible for those statistics. Then he said, “I’m tired of hearing teachers blamed for our problems.” Ah. That produced the first big happy roar of the crowd.
Predictably, he said he would fix “the broken promises of No Child Left Behind.” Another giant roar. And after endorsing the goals of that federal law, he declared that forcing school staff to accomplish those ambitious goals “without the resources they need is wrong.” The crowd went nuts.
But then, without changing his tone of voice, he enthusiastically endorsed charter schools. The crowd was eerily silent, and stayed that way as he proudly proclaimed his career-long support of public-school choice.
No one clued him in that allowing parents to choose their kid’s school is not a favorite idea among union delegates?
And then, without apology, he swore that he would support allowing districts to “reward” teachers who take on extra responsibilities, or work in hard-to-serve areas, or perform consistently well in the classroom. He doesn’t use the words, but this is none other than union-loathed “merit pay.” The assembly outright booed the man. Loudly. He responded by saying “I know this wasn’t necessarily the most popular part of my speech last year, but I said it then, and I’m saying it again today, because it is what I believe.” ...
...Unions first took hold in the United States because they were the only countervailing force to monstrous practices of America’s growing Big-Business. Only by banding together could workers unions force management to the bargaining table. There, unions won such rights as we take for granted now — the 40-hour work week, safety regulations and fair treatment of the 50-year-old whom management wants to replace with a young buck.
But now, in public education, there is no real countervailing force to the unions. The taxpayers have some representation at the bargaining table, but kids and parents have none. Families will never have the kind of monolithic power that can fight in contract negotiations because they’ll never become a bureaucracy in their own right. Nor should they have to. But more than anything, a well-established union is a bureaucracy. Teachers unions came into being to stop the exploitation of teachers, but grew into private businesses whose main concern is to support themselves. And bureaucracies that outlive their usefulness fight like piranhas to stay alive.
So Obama wooed the teachers, but did not woo the union bureaucracy...
Sunday, November 09, 2008
This from the Providence Journal: