The Democratic Party and the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, have long been friends, but according to The New York Times, that may be changing. Last week, in what Drew University Associate Professor of Political Science Patrick McGuinn called a "Nixon-goes-to-China kind of moment," the union narrowly passed a resolution calling for the resignation of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. It was the latest and perhaps most significant sign of a growing divide between educators and education reformers, including the White House.
Teachers unions have not been particularly happy with Duncan as of late, but according to The Wall Street Journal, frustration boiled over last month when the Education Secretary applauded a California ruling weakening union-backed teacher tenure rules. The secretary called the decision an opportunity to "build a new framework" for the profession that "protects students' rights to equal educational opportunities" while providing teachers "the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve."
The NEA resolution calling for Duncan's resignation was inspired in part by Duncan's statement, but as The Washington Post reported, tensions between the group and the White House have been piquing for some time. This particular vote came just before the ascension of a new NEA president, Lily Eskelsen García, who is known for her steadfast opposition to anyone considered a corporate school reformer. Some suggest President Obama and Duncan fit that bill, and, according to The Wall Street Journal, a recent White House statement announcing that it would begin enforcing a provision of No Child Left Behind that ensures students have access to "effective educators" only made matters worse.
"I really do believe this is about something much bigger than Arne himself," departing NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said of the resolution, as reported by The New York Times. He stated that "frustration and anger" has escalated at the use of high-stakes tests in teacher evaluations.
The NEA resolution is not unprecedented: According to The Washington Post, similar measures have failed at NEA conventions in the past, and nobody should expect Duncan to act on the union's recommendation. What is unusual, however, is that the union is targeting a Democratic administration. As The New York Times reported, teachers unions have supported the Democratic Party for years, and the NEA endorsed Obama in both of his presidential runs. Teachers who oppose the administration's education proposals suggest this support has been far too one-sided, and some groups -- particularly at the state level -- have begun to contribute more money to even conservative Republicans, so long as they object to high-stakes testing or tenure changes.
Some might say the Duncan resolution signals a shift in allegiance among teachers unions, but according to Joe Williams, executive director of the advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform, which supports test-based evaluations and changes in tenure, the vote is a sign of the NEA's waning political influence.
"The Democratic Party used to outsource its education policy to the N.E.A.," Williams told The New York Times. The push for Duncan to resign, however, "made them look like the lunatic fringe. It's not exactly the way you convince the public that you've got a good, credible idea."
As for Duncan, he has remained mostly mute on the subject.
"I always try to stay out of local union politics and I think most teachers do, too," Duncan said of the vote, as reported by The New York Times. He said the Obama administration "had a very good working relationship with the N.E.A. in the past" and that he looked forward to working with García down the road.
Compiled by Aimee Hosler
"Departure of Official Is Sought by Teachers," nytimes.com, July 9, 2014, Motoko Rich, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/09/us/departure-of-official-is-sought-by-teachers.html
"Hooray for Arne Duncan!" online.wsj.com, July 8, 2014, Jason L. Riley, http://online.wsj.com/articles/political-diary-hooray-for-arne-duncan-1404853133
"Largest U.S. teachers union calls for Education Secretary Duncan to resign," washingtonpost.com, July 8, 2014, Valerie Strauss, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/07/08/largest-u-s-teachers-union-calls-for-education-secretary-duncan-to-resign/