The Obama administration’s education reforms have been almost completely absent from the national political debate because neither Party has an incentive to talk about them. Republicans don’t want to admit that Obama has carried out policies — more charter schools and teacher accountability — that they have spent years endorsing. Democrats don’t want to call attention to an issue that alienates teachers unions, a core element of their base. And teachers unions themselves don’t want to force their own members to choose between the union's agenda and Obama's.
But the unions are growing increasingly obstinate in their opposition of the sorts of accountability and pressure that Obama has helped bring upon them. Last week, the National Education Association held a convention where it elected a new president, Lily Eskelsen García, and also officially called for the resignation of Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan. The delicate balancing act within the Democratic coalition is beginning to fray.
The main vehicle for Obama’s education agenda is Race to the Top, a portion of stimulus money it used as a lure to encourage states to overhaul their schools, and which produced sweeping changes. (That Race to the Top was tucked into a massive bill that passed very quickly, in the midst of an economic calamity, further obscured the scope of Obama’s agenda.) That revolution has continued to proceed, often carried out by a cadre of center-left education-policy reformers allied with the administration. The reformers, citing evidence that good teachers can teach the same class of students dramatically more than a poor teacher can, have introduced new methods to bring talented recruits into the teaching profession and to weed out ineffective teachers. They have also encouraged the spread of public charter schools, which experiment with new pedagogical methods.
One of the most effective innovations used by the best charterschools is a longer teaching day. More school time has been found especially helpful for low-income children, who receive less academic support at home. In Washington, D.C., school chancellor Kaya Henderson has made longer school days a priority, and urged teachers to embrace it — not only will they be paid more directly for their additional teaching time, but the likely improved student outcomes will also increase teachers' bonus pay. The Washington Teachers Union has blocked Henderson.
The leaders of the teachers unions have generally taken care to placate the demands of their most implacably anti-reform members without opening an irreparable breach with the administration. The unions have strong, clear-headed reasons for their caution. However strongly they disagree with Obama and the education reformers about the design of education and teacher pay, they do agree on the principle of paying teachers more. This is in contrast to Republicans, who generally support all the reformers’ accountability measures and lower public budgets as well. And the leaders recognize that the hard-line unionist position — tenure rules that make it impossible to fire even the worst-performing teachers — are nearly impossible to defend with the public.
As the leaders of the unions have equivocated, hard-liners have increasingly agitated for more direct confrontation. The leadership of this movement has fallen to Diane Ravitch, formerly a right-of-center education activist who has converted to the cause of teachers-union absolutism with an evangelical fervor, maintaining an almost superhuman schedule of public speaking and prolific blogging.
Ravitch has depicted education reform as a plot by corporate elites to privatize schools and destroy unions. If charter schools claim to help poor children by providing longer school days, then Ravitch is certain that longer school days cannot work. Having identified their enemies with the cause of pure evil, Ravitch and her fellow hard-liners have taken to defending not only the practice of paying teachers by length of service, but the structure and form of the school day (created in an era of stay-at-home mothers and designed around the summer harvest) as a standard of perfection that must be defended absolutely. Ravitch and her allies have found the leadership of the unions disturbingly faint of heart.
The pressure has dramatically intensified. One precipitating event is a shocking ruling, in a case called Vergara v. California, that has justifiably panicked opponents of the reform. The case, brought by school reformers on behalf of low-income students, charged that tenure rules (which make the firing of incompetent teachers nearly impossible) discriminate against poor students, who are far more likely than affluent students to have ineffective teachers.
The Vergara precedent would force California — and possibly other states, which will see similar lawsuits — to abandon tenure rules that protect ineffective teachers. Even if the direct legal strategy is reversed by higher courts, it embarrasses the unions by highlighting both the least-defensible aspect of their agenda and its most sympathetic victims. Duncan praised the ruling, further enraging unions and their supporters. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who has attempted to conciliate the administration, wrote a protest letter requesting better “leadership.” Ravitch replied, sharply and not inaccurately, that Duncan is not a wavering ally but an enemy. (“Duncan showed that he IS a leader,” she wrote, “a leader in the effort to strip teachers of due process and a leader in the well-funded campaign to erode public confidence in public schools.”)
Ravitch spoke at the National Education Association convention (the NEA being the other and more implacable of the teacher unions). She has implored the unions to fight back against the Obama administration:
The Obama administration strongly supports privatization via charters; one condition of Race to the Top was that states had to increase the number of charters. The administration is no friend of teachers or of teacher unions …
What is needed at this hour is a strong, militant response to these attacks on teachers, public schools, and — where they exist — unions …
The results of the NEA convention reflected Ravitch’s militance. Not only did the union officially call for Duncan’s resignation — a measure that was introduced, but failed to pass, in each of the last four years — its new president Lily Eskelsen García, is taking a more Ravitch-esque public line. The flavor of her rhetoric can be seen in this Politico interview, in which García calls value-added measures (which gauge teacher performance) “the mark of the devil,” and plans to “further shift the union away from its longstanding and reflexive support of Democrats” (this is the reporter’s phrasing). The notion of an alliance between teachers unions and Republicans may sound preposterous, but it is Republicans who are leading the charge against Common Core teaching standards.
Ultimately, the union backlash is likely to be channeled into the 2016 Democratic primary. Of the various sources of liberal dismay that may be brought to bear upon Hillary Clinton — Warren-esque concern with inequality, unease with the Clinton’s hawkish record — the most focused and organized may well be the cause of the unions. “Supporters of public education must rally and stand together and elect a president in 2016 who supports public schools,” urges Ravitch. This argument will be heard in Iowa.
*This article appears in the July 14, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.