From the Chicago teachers’ strike to the debut of a controversial anti-teacher’s union film, education has been getting national attention ahead of an important election.
But the biggest news might be that although teachers unions have typically been critical supporters of the Democratic Party, a growing number of Democrats are willing to back conservative education reforms.
“You have your old guard teachers’ union members who have been longtime supporters of the Democratic Party, and then you have a new generation of education reformers coming out of a lot of big cities and coming up from the states that have real world on the ground experience,” said Michael McShane, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“There is definitely a struggle within the Democratic Party, and it’s not entirely clear at this moment who is going to win.”
The unions’ vast financial resources, as well as the ability to mobilize members for protest and strikes, have given them a loud voice in the Democratic Party for decades. Still, McShane said that may be changing.
“The teachers’ unions have money, lots of it, and this huge membership — they are extremely powerful,” he said. “But these younger generations appear to be really good at organizing and messaging and getting their point across, so I think the momentum is swinging in their direction.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is one Democratic politician who found out how hard it is to fight teachers’ unions.
Chicago teachers went on strike last month to resist Emanuel’s reforms, which included longer school days and merit-based evaluations.
The strike kept 350,000 Chicago public school kids out of their classrooms for a week, and eventually, the city struck a deal offering teachers a 16 percent salary increase in exchange for a longer school day and other small improvements.
Emanuel’s old boss, President Barack Obama, has curbed the power of teachers’ unions more aggressively than his Democratic predecessors, said McShane.
“President Obama, through Race to the Top and through his blueprints for the reauthorization of elementary and secondary education act, is definitely looking at more choice for students and parents and more accountability for teachers, which are two things that in general teachers unions have opposed,” he said.
The president’s forward thinking on education has its limits. He does not support school choice, the most sought after policy of education reformers. Early in his administration, he got into a well publicized fight over D.C.’s opportunity scholarships for low-income children.
But one of the most prominent school choice advocates in the country is in fact another Democrat: Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C. schools. Rhee has thrown her support behind programs that give parents more choice over their children’s schooling, such as charter school vouchers and teacher accountability reforms.
“I think that the vast majority of Democrats out there understand that this country is not going to be able to regain its position in the global marketplace until we fix our public education system,” said Rhee, in an interview with Public Radio International. “They have to be willing to challenge the teachers’ unions on the things that are not working.”
Rhee even endorsed a controversial new film, “Won’t Back Down,” which depicts one parent’s efforts to liberate her daughter’s school from the clutches of a frustrating and bureaucratic teachers’ union.
The film’s anti-union message earned it predictable criticism from public school teachers, but also strong condemnation from left-leaning movie critics who branded it “propaganda.”
“Though the film’s pernicious propagandistic bias is irritating and misleading, it can’t be overemphasized that what is really wrong with this film is how feeble it is dramatically,” wrote Kenneth Turan, a film critic for the Los Angeles Times.
“For all its strenuous feints at fair play, though, Won’t Back Down is something less honorable — a propaganda piece with blame on its mind,” wrote Ella Taylor, a film critic for NPR.
Mary Pols of Time magazine called it “wholly manipulative.”
But Jonathan Bucher, education director for the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, said the critics’ comments only revealed their biases.
“If the reviews had said, the acting is just subpar and the plot has gigantic gaping holes in it, so that’s why this movie only gets 2 stars or 3 stars, that would be one thing, but that doesn’t seem to me to be what some of the strongest critics are saying,” he said, in an interview with The DC News Foundation. “What they are saying is this is propaganda, trying to push some motive.”
Bucher rejects that the movie is propaganda. He said that it was largely fair to teachers’ unions, especially given their recent demands during strikes and protests.
“We had this play out in Chicago,” he said, noting that the actions of the teachers’ union in the film mirror real-life teacher protests, both against the film during its New York premiere, and during the recent strike in Chicago. “Suddenly when we put it up on screen and say here’s what’s going on, there are places in American with failing schools and a deeply imbedded set of interests that don’t want radical change … they only want to change things so that more of the same is the solution.”
Bucher agreed that some Democrats were leading the way on education reform, but he also warned that the teachers’ unions were still quite powerful — and fighting school choice across the country.
“We’re certainly closer than we were when it comes to having advocates for parental empowerment on both sides of the aisle, but we just can’t declare victory on that,” he said. “We’re still at the position where we’re battling these reforms state to state.”
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