The split between the nation’s teachers and the Democratic Party has turned into a gaping maw.
Over the July 4 holiday, members of the Representative Assembly at the National Education Association’s (NEA) annual convention in Denver approved a new business item demanding the resignation of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, citing in particular the Department of Education’s promotion of standardized testing and “pitting public school students against each other based on test scores.”
A resolution calling for Duncan’s ouster had been introduced at every NEA convention since 2010, but until now had never passed.
Another major factor behind the newly intense hostility to Duncan was his response to the Vergara v. California court ruling that recently invalidated California’s laws regarding teacher tenure and layoffs. Unions wanted Duncan to swiftly condemn the ruling, but his official statements were lukewarm or even somewhat supportive, suggesting that states needed to rewrite their tenure laws to make it easier to remove bad teachers.
Duncan’s response wasn’t far from the mind of the California Teachers Association, whose delegates introduced the measure. Dean Vogel, the organization’s president, told Education Week that “Vergara was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” and said Duncan’s response had been “shameful.”
The demand for Duncan’s ouster is one of the sharpest breaks yet between the Democratic Party and a group that has historically been among its most stalwart supporters. Reformist Democrats and unions have repeatedly clashed over tenure reform, charter schools, merit pay and Common Core multi-state education standards. Fierce attacks on Duncan may be serving as an indirect criticism of President Obama, whom the NEA has endorsed twice.
Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a think tank that focuses on education reform, said that the NEA’s vote was less about Duncan and more about sending a warning shot to President Obama and the wider Democratic Party.
“Past resolutions were warnings to Secretary Duncan. This is a warning to Obama now,” Stergios told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “To go to the point where you actually pass a resolution, that tells me if the president wants to have them on board for the coming election cycle, then there will [have to] be changes.”
The implied threat, he said, is that if Democrats remain hostile to union interests, “[h]ow involved will they be in the elections?”
It’s a threat that may go farther than what the NEA’s leadership desires. Outgoing NEA president Dennis Van Roekel released a statement acknowledging that members were “understandably frustrated” with Duncan, but falling short of endorsing the resolution.
Stergios said that in addition to Vergara, another driver of the Duncan resolution may be increasing anger over Common Core, which Duncan and President Obama have consistently supported. In the past year, nearly 100,000 teachers have joined a group calling itself the Badass Teachers Association (BAT), which aggressively attacks Common Core and many other major school reform efforts.
That growing opposition could split the NEA, as the group still officially supports the standards.
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