The first person I met at the Democratic National Convention, on a shuttle bus from the Denver airport, was Nancy Ruth White, a delegate from Redlands, California. Nancy first got involved in Democratic politics as a young woman volunteering for George McGovern, and the 1972 convention was her first. Over the years -- most of them quite discouraging to her political hopes -- she supported the presidential campaigns of Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton, and now, enthusiastically, Barack Obama. She organized her friends and neighbors in support of the Equal Rights Amendment and universal health care. And as a teacher, Nancy did it all through her local union, part of the California Teachers' Association, one of the most powerful affiliates in the nation.
As a teachers' union activist, Nancy is typical of hundreds of delegates attending the Democratic National Convention in Denver this week. Teachers and their unions remain some of the most loyal and influential grass-roots Democrats; out of 4,400 convention delegates, about one-tenth are teachers' union members. And what's more, teachers are a broad-based group in a party often accused of being little more than a hodgepodge of identity-based coalitions. No one race or sex enters the teaching profession. Instead, what most teachers have in common is the fact that they've consciously chosen to devote their careers to educating other people's children -- a selfless, difficult, and poorly remunerated task.
But the centrality of people like Nancy to the Democratic Party, long a given, was put in sharp relief Sunday at a pre-convention Democrats for Education Reform seminar, held at the breathtakingly postmodern Denver Museum of Art. The event, billed "Ed Challenge for Change," was sponsored by a coalition of foundations, nonprofits, and businesses supporting the charter-school movement, including Ed in '08, the advocacy group founded by Bill Gates and real-estate mogul Eli Broad. The evening provided a truly unusual spectacle at a convention: A megawatt group of Democrats, including Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, Mayor Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C., and former Gov. Ray Romer of Colorado, bashed teachers' unions for an hour. Amid the approving audience were Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, an icon of the civil-rights movement; Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, (in)famous as a high-profile African American Hillary Clinton endorser; and Mayor David Cicilline of Providence, the reformer of that once-Mob-ridden New England city. Cicilline took avid notes.
"Ten years ago when I talked about school choice, I was literally tarred and feathered," said Booker, whose celebrity at this convention, as a young African American politician said to have the ear of Barack Obama, cannot be overstated. "I was literally brought into a broom closet by a union and told I would never win office if I kept talking about charters."
Moderator John Merrow, a reporter on The News Hour, asked Fenty what interests benefited from reactionary education policies that hurt children. The mayor took the bait. "Definitely the unions," he replied. "[D.C. Schools Chancellor] Michelle Rhee is negotiating what is probably the most aggressive union contract in the country. She'll be able to fire teachers but also be able to pay them more."
"The American Federation of Teachers, which I don't think does anything for the people of the District of Columbia, is weighing in against it," Fenty continued. "And the only thing I can think of is that the heads of the union, they want to keep their jobs."
Summing up the panel's feelings, Roy Romer said, "In the Democratic Party you have to be realistic about some coalitions that are wedded to the past on education." He intoned, "Let's not be wedded to somebody's union rules. ... An adult agenda wins too often in our present union situation."
What would Nancy Ruth White have thought, had she been in the audience at the Democrats for Education Reform event? Leaders of her own party spent much of the event speaking with hostility toward the very organization that galvanized her interest in progressive politics.
Undoubtedly, teachers' unions should not be immune from criticism. Cory Booker is certainly entitled to his disaffection with them; after he supported transfers from Newark's bleak neighborhood schools to private schools and higher-performing public schools, the city's teachers' union advertised heavily in opposition. One anti-Booker billboard read, "Help Wanted. Stop the Killings in Newark Now!" What did that have to do with education? Not much. The goal was simply to delegitimize political leadership at odds with union priorities.
In Washington, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers have been slow to embrace the mantra of uniform expectations and test-based accountability, which most national education reformers now believe are key to erasing the astounding achievement gaps between white and nonwhite students, and between the rich and poor. In the United States, about half of all black and Latino students drop out of high school, while 78 percent of white students earn a degree. And while No Child Left Behind is regarded as deeply flawed legislation in every quarter, it is also almost uniformly praised by policy wonks for shining a light on the achievement gap and for instituting the first national collection of education data correlated by race and family income. But the national teachers' unions wholeheartedly oppose NCLB, mostly because of its focus on standardized tests and its threat of defunding schools labeled as "failing."
The American people, too, regard NCLB with disdain. Speaking against the underfunded mandate on the campaign trail this season, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were received with hoots and hollers of approval. So is it really smart politics for progressive education reformers -- who are rightly dedicated to providing opportunity to poor, nonwhite children -- to be so vocal in painting unions as the enemy, and NCLB as a friend?
Teachers' unions ought to get on board with proven education-reform tactics that benefit kids, such as longer school days complete with rigorous, research-based lesson planning and pedagogy. Still, it is pure fantasy to view teachers' unions as the determining factor in every debate about public education. The success of some urban charter schools in educating low-income minority children and sending them to four-year colleges in record numbers is impressive. But while some charters, such as the Uncommon Schools in New York and New Jersey, are not unionized, others, notably the Green Dot schools in California, do use collective bargaining.
What's more, issues of equality of funding between low and high-income schools have not been resolved; most states continue to fund schools through local property taxes, meaning rich districts have the resources to attract the best teachers. Even thornier is the problem of the increasing racial and socioeconomic segregation of American schools, assisted by the Supreme Court and judges throughout the country who have overturned local desegregation plans, even those that have worked well.
Ultimately it is policy makers -- supported by parents -- who must rise to these challenges and recommit themselves to educational equality. Teachers' unions have a role to play, but they aren't either the villain or the fix-all of education politics. What the unions remain, however, is a key Democratic constituency. Surely, convincing, cajoling, and encouraging are better tactics to win over grass-roots teachers than hectoring them with anti-union rhetoric. After all, if folks like Nancy Ruth White and the generations of teachers following her embrace of the Democrats for Education Reform agenda -- giving up tenure in exchange for higher starting salaries and merit pay tied to student achievement -- the unions will have to get with the program. If they don't, they'll risk becoming irrelevant to their own members.