On the final day of the National Education Associations convention last summer, its outgoing general counsel, Bob Chanin, gave a speech for the ages. After sharing fond recollections of his 41 years as the NEAs top lawyer, he switched gears and started lobbing grenades at conservative and right-wing bastards, including Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes. The NEA and its affiliates, by contrast, were the nations leading advocates for public education and the type of liberal social and economic agenda that these groups find objectionable. Chanins glowing portrait of the NEA was wildly wrong, of course, but so was his characterization of the unions opponents. People of all political stripesnot just right-wing bastardsare starting to realize that the single biggest impediment to education reform is the NEA itself.
Take the nations 4,000 charter schoolspublic schools that operate with less red tape, fewer suffocating union rules, and a higher percentage of minorities and poor students than regular public schools do. In California, 12 of the top 15 public schools are charters, including three in Oakland that cater to exceptionally poor children. Los Angeles charters median score on Californias Academic Performance Index was 728 in 2008, compared with 663 for regular public schools.
Who are the right-wing bastards who support charter schools? Well, theres Los Angeless liberal-leaning school board, which looked at its large number of failing schools and voted 61 to turn 200 of the lowest performers into charters. Theres Steve Barr, a card-carrying Democrat who served in the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis and who now operates 17 successful Green Dot charter schools in L.A. And dont forget Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that supports charters and that says, in its statement of principles, that American public schools, once viewed romantically as avenues of opportunity for all, have become captive to powerful, entrenched interests that too often put the demands of adults before the educational needs of children.
Entrenched interests is a thinly veiled reference, of course, to teachers unions like the NEA, whose position on charter schools is very clear. According to a resolution adopted at last years convention, NEA shall oppose any initiative to greatly expand the growth of charter schoolsthough by no means should this effort conflict with the ongoing and necessary work of organizing charter school teachers. Unfortunately, this necessary work hasnt helped students. A study of charter schools in Boston by Harvard economist Tom Kane found that students accepted by lottery at independently operated charter schools significantly outperformed students who lost the lottery and returned to district schools. But students accepted by lottery at charters run by the school district with unionized teachers experienced no benefit.
The NEA fights school vouchers even more fiercely than it opposes charters. In Washington, D.C., where public schools are a national embarrassmenttops in spending, last in achievementthe union set its sights on the Opportunity Scholarship Program. This tiny but successful voucher program gave 1,700 financially strapped parents, mostly poor African-Americans, the opportunity to free their children from horrendous public schools, getting a few thousand of their tax dollars back to help pay the tuition at private schools of their choosing. A number of the 1,700 lucky lottery winners were able to attend Sidwell Friends, the same school that President Obamas daughters attend.
Heres what NEA president Dennis Van Roekel wrote to Democratic congressmen last March:
The National Education Association strongly opposes any extension of the District of Columbia private school voucher . . . program. We expect that Members of Congress who support public education, and whom we have supported, will stand firm against any proposal to extend the pilot program. Actions associated with these issues WILL be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 111th Congress.
Vouchers are not real education reform. . . . Opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA.
Three months later, Congress dutifully voted to kill the program. Who are the right-wing bastards here? The black parents and children who benefited from the voucher program?
Just two days before Chanins speech, the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights released a report, National Teachers Unions and the Struggle over School Reform, maintaining that the teachers unions consistently blocked meaningful education reform and accusing the NEA of trying to end enforcement of the No Child Left Behind act. The unions almost uniformly call for the spending of more money and the creation of more teaching positions which, of course, result in an increase in union membership, union income and union power, wrote one of the authors, David Kilpatrick. Perhaps the reports authors are the right-wing bastards Chanin was talking about? The problem is that Kilpatrick spent 12 years as a top union officer, while the studys other authors include former senators Bill Bradley and Birch Bayh, D.C. congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and civil rights leader Roger Wilkinsall liberals.
That Democratic leaders and poor African-Americans in Washington have found common cause with the Wall Street Journal and Fox News shows that school reform is neither a liberal nor a conservative issue. While Chanin champions the power of an entrenched union and belittles those who oppose it, people of goodwill across the political spectrum fight back for real education reform.
Larry Sand is the president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network.