Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (Flickr/House Education and Labor Committee)
The resignation of Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee concludes the latest chapter in the ongoing war between free-market education reformers and teachers’ unions. Many Rhee supporters blame union opposition for the electoral defeat of Rhee’s boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, and see unions as the biggest problem in education. In the much-discussed documentary, Waiting for Superman, in which Rhee is painted as a heroine, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter declares, "It's very, very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teachers' unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform."
For a Democratic administration to support racial affirmative action -- as the Obama administration is doing in a contentious lawsuit challenging the University of Texas at Austin's racial-preference admissions policy -- may seem natural and predictable. The administration filed an amicus brief with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, siding with the university in a lawsuit filed by two white students. But given President Barack Obama's past rhetoric on the issue, the decision to enter the fray is somewhat surprising -- and fraught with political danger.
For generations, those seeking to break the cycle of poverty have divided into two camps: integrationists, who believe that separate schools and neighborhoods for rich and poor perpetuate poverty, and community organizers, who want to "fix" inner-city communities and schools rather than move people around. Generally speaking, integrationists have had stronger social-science research on their side, while community organizers have claimed to be more politically realistic.
The University of Notre Dame has traditionally invited new presidents to address its student body at commencement. (Flickr)
Conservative Catholics have been berating Notre Dame for extending a commencement-speaking invitation to a pro-choice president. We agree that President Barack Obama shouldn't speak at Notre Dame -- but abortion has nothing to do with it. Notre Dame practices pervasive discrimination in its admissions policies. Every year the school reserves 25 percent of the seats in its entering class for children of alumni. These "legacy preferences" result in applicants being granted or denied admission based not on their merit but on their ancestry.
Just as Democrats have finally settled on a nominee and begun to unite, a major new fight has broken out between competing factions in the liberal education-policy community. One group argues that poverty should not be used as an excuse for failure and sees teacher unions as a major obstacle to promoting equity through education reform. The other group says education reform by itself cannot close the achievement gap between rich and poor and black and white without addressing larger economic inequalities in society. The battle, which can broadly be characterized as one between portions of the civil-rights community and teacher unions, is a movie we've seen before -- most explosively in the New York City teacher strikes of the 1960s -- and it doesn't end well. Sen.