The leadership of the National Educational Association (NEA) is mad, and on July 4th that anger reached a boiling point when delegates passed a new business item calling for the resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. While historically, teachers unions including the NEA have been staunch supporters of Democrat administrations, the relationship between the NEA and the Obama administration has been a strained one, largely because of the Obama administration’s support of key elements of an education reformist agenda which includes financial support for the expansion of charter schools, the continuance of the DC school voucher program, reform of teacher evaluation to include student performance, and most notably now, reform of teacher tenure and seniority rules. The Obama administration’s support for such reforms has earned President Obama and Secretary Duncan a place on the NEA’s ‘not so nice’ list. Officially, the new business item stated that it was necessary to call for Secretary Duncan’s resignation because of the U.S. Department of Education’s “failed education agenda focused on more high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores, and for continuing to promote policies and decisions that undermine public schools and colleges, the teaching education professionals, and education unions.”
Duncan has flat out dismissed the NEA’s call for his resignation. In a recent AP article, Duncan is quoted as saying, “I always try to stay out of local union politics. I think most teachers do too.” Though brief, Duncan’s comment is clever dig at the union. Duncan is making the claim, which I largely agree with, that although the NEA’s leadership claims to be the voice of teachers, most teachers are not involved in the development of the union’s policy agenda and are not typically well-informed on the inner-workings and maneuvering of the union’s leadership. I go even further than Duncan and assert that many teachers, particularly younger teachers, are not supportive of the policy agenda, policy stances, and tactics of the NEA. And for that reason, I am very careful to distinguish between the voice the NEA’s leadership and the voice of teachers; I am convinced that on a variety of important policy issues their voices are not in harmony.
This call for Secretary Duncan’s resignation is the NEA’s latest move in a battle that’s gone on for about a decade now; a battle that in the end, the NEA is sure to lose. Democratic administration’s have historically been the NEA’s allies, holding off the progressive education reform ideas of conservatives. That day has passed. Much of the education reform agenda is supported and even advocated for by growing numbers of Democrats and political independents. If the next president elected is a Republican the NEA is sunk. They don’t stand a chance of reversing the education reform tide which includes the expansion of school choice, tenure reform (and in some states tenure elimination), teacher evaluation based in part on student performance, and tying teachers’ pay to their performance. But even if the next president is a Democrat, the likelihood of that Democrat being from the extreme liberal end of the party is none; it will not happen. Whether the next president is a Democrat or a Republican, s/he will have to live and lead from a more moderate than extreme position; and it is the more moderate Democrats, or neo-liberals, that are becoming more and more supportive of the education reform agenda that the NEA is fighting against.
In the end, the NEA will lose this battle. Education policy does have a tendency to shift somewhat like a pendulum, but there are pieces of the current education reform agenda that are here to stay. Charter schools and public school choice aren’t going anywhere. Public school choice will become central to public schooling, everywhere. Teachers will be evaluated at least in part based on the performance of their students; what that measurement will look like will vary from state to state and may change over time, but the days of teacher evaluation not having a student performance component are soon to be over. Tenure for teachers will go away in some places and will look radically different in most other places. School administrators will have increased authority with the hiring and removal of teachers. The days of collective bargaining agreements protecting ineffective senior teachers while more junior effective teachers are dismissed will be ending very soon. Teaching will no longer be a profession where you can go a job pretty easily, join the union, get tenure for sticking around for four years, and have a safe position for the rest of your career.
The NEA is fighting for relevance and survival. ‘The organization’s leadership knows that Secretary Duncan won’t consider resigning based on their call, and the fact that the largest teachers union in the country can call for the Secretary of Education’s resignation and most Americans won’t even take their call seriously is an indicator of the organization’s waning influence on educational leadership and educational policy. I do believe there is a future for the NEA, but not as a labor union. Teachers are not labor. Teachers are professionals. My hope is that the NEA’s new leadership will take the opportunity during this time of transition for teachers and public schooling to reform itself into the world-class professional association that America’s teachers need and deserve.