[Marxism] Democratic mayors challenge teachers unions in urban political shift
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Mar 31 06:53:19 MDT 2012
Democratic mayors challenge teachers unions in urban political shift
By Lyndsey Layton, Published: March 30
As a young labor organizer in Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa worked
for the city’s teachers, honing his political skills in the fight for a
good contract. The union loved him back, supporting the Democrat’s
election to the State Assembly, City Council and, finally, the mayor’s
office he occupies today.
But now, Villaraigosa, a rising star in the national Democratic party,
has a different view. He calls the teachers union “the one, unwavering
roadblock” to improving public education in L.A.
Villaraigosa is one of several Democratic mayors in cities across the
country — Chicago, Cleveland, Newark and Boston, among them — who are
challenging teachers unions in ways that seemed inconceivable just a
“This is a very, very interesting political situation that is way
counterintuitive,” said Charles Taylor Kerchner, who has written two
books about teachers unions.
At at time when most Americans believe that U.S. education is imperiled,
and cities are especially struggling to improve schools, the tension
between the mayors and the unions is causing a fundamental realignment
of two powerful forces in urban politics.
In the clash over what is best for children, adults on both sides are
The mayors risk turning labor friends into enemies, a lesson D.C. mayor
Adrian Fenty learned in 2010 when he lost his seat in part because
teachers were enraged by his school reforms. The unions, meanwhile, risk
appearing recalcitrant and self-serving, further alienating a public
frustrated by failing schools and growing cool to organized labor.
The mayors want a raft of changes. They want to replace the uniform pay
scale with merit pay. They seek to expand public charter schools, which
are largely non-union. Some want to lengthen school days, requiring
teachers to work more hours.
And nearly all of these mayors have set their sights on the one
workplace protection that teachers have held central for more than 100
The unions say many of the “fixes” embraced by the mayors are trendy
ideas without evidence that they help children learn. Instead, they
allow politicians to appear as if they are making improvements without
having to confront the profound problems of urban schools, labor leaders
“We don’t want to have honest conversations about poverty and
segregation and race and class, all those other sorts of ills,” said
Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “Those are really
tough issues. So this gives them an excuse to focus on something else.”
Her union fought Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to add 90 minutes to the
school day in Chicago, which has the shortest school day of any major
city. Emanuel, the former chief of staff to President Obama, got the
Illinois legislature to pass a law that will allow him to impose a
longer school day starting in September. It also makes it harder for the
union to strike, among other things.
On the national level, teachers unions have started to recalibrate,
looking for ways to work in partnership with politicians.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers,
acknowledged that the unions have been too focused on fairness for their
members and not necessarily quality in the schools.
“We have made mistakes,” she said. “You have to really focus to make
sure you’re doing everything you can so that kids are first. Tenure, for
example. Make sure tenure is about fairness and make sure it’s not a
shield for incompetence.”
First awarded in the 1920s to protect female teachers who could be
summarily fired for getting pregnant or marrying, tenure is considered
by teachers to be their main protection against firing for political or
But today, tenure makes it nearly impossible to get rid of weak
teachers, the mayors say.
“We know how difficult it is to fire a doctor in most of our states — it
is significantly more difficult to fire a teacher,” said Villaraigosa,
adding that the dismissal rate in L.A. is less than 1 percent and 97
percent of the teachers get tenure after two years. “Our current tenure
practice is meaningless, so we are challenging it.”
The tough talk coming from Democrats has angered many teachers, who
already feel under assault from Republicans. “Teacher unions feel
extraordinarily betrayed across this country,” said Lewis of the Chicago
Many of the mayors are emboldened by reforms promoted by the Obama
administration, private philanthropies such as the Bill and Melinda
Gates Foundation and organizations such as Democrats for Education
Reform, a national political action committee and advocacy group.
“All of us, in one way or another are swimming in their wake,” Emanuel
said, referring to President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
The mayors say the economic health of their cities depend on better schools.
“Long-term prosperity depends on the ability to keep middle-class
families — black, white, Latino — in the city,” said Ed Rendell, a
Democrat who served as Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor.
“There’s a growing understanding among the mayors that, in some ways,
it’s the whole ball of wax.”
In Cleveland, Democratic Mayor Frank Jackson has proposed a sweeping
education plan that would reset the relationship between the city and
Jackson wants to disregard seniority when it comes to firing and is
seeking a “fresh start” provision so that future teacher contracts are
negotiated from scratch, among other things.
“I don’t think Democrat or Republican, pro-union or anti-union, public
school or charter school,” said Jackson, who is in his second term. “I’m
going to have a conversation about educating children. When you do that,
all those other things don’t matter. ”
“I’m opposed to anything that eliminates collective bargaining,” Jackson
said. “But I’m also opposed to collective bargaining standing in the way
of educating children.”
David Quolke, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, said the mayor
crafted his plan with input from business leaders but not teachers.
“This isn’t an education plan,” Quolke said. “The message is ‘Let’s fire
our way to improving the schools.’ Republican or Democrat, that’s just
the wrong way to proceed in terms of school improvement. It makes it
worse, in a sense, that he’s got a D next to his name.”
Jackson’s plan must be approved by the Republican-controlled state
legislature and he has found a powerful lobbyist in Gov. John Kasich
(R), whose own battle with unions made Ohio a national focal point last
Kasich tried to curtail bargaining rights for government workers but his
law was repealed by voters in November after unions waged an expensive
campaign against it. Now the Republican governor said he is praying for
the Democratic mayor’s proposal in the hope that it could be expanded
Jackson said he needs to take drastic action to win political support
for more funding for the Cleveland school system, which is teetering on
the edge of insolvency, faces a $65 million projected deficit and is
among the state’s lowest performing school districts. In the past 10
years, city school enrollment has plummeted by 30,000, with students
either moving out of the city or into public charter schools.
“I want a longer school year, flexible days, preschool — all that costs
money,” said Jackson, who intends to seek a new school tax in November.
“The only way we can get a levy is to demonstrate to people that they
will be paying for something that’s different.”
Mayors are not only wrestling with immediate budget shortfalls but see a
pension crisis looming ahead.
“Almost all the major districts have hidden huge costs in terms of
pensions,” said Kenneth Wong, a political scientist at Brown University
who studies mayoral control of urban schools. “The mayors are beginning
to realize there is no way the current tax base can support current
operations and also deal with pension liability. This is a huge factor
in why we see mayors getting more involved.”
The two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and
the American Federation of Teachers, are showing some flexibility by
supporting some previously untouchable reforms, such as teacher
evaluations. And some local unions in cities such as Baltimore; New
Haven, Conn.; and Hillsborough County, Fla., have agreed to embrace some
Locally, the teachers union in Montgomery County has long collaborated
with the administration. Teachers and principals work together to
evaluate educators, identifying weak teachers who need extra support and
dismissing those who cannot improve. The 12-year-old program has been
held up by the U.S. Department of Education as a national model for
But so far, they’re the exception.
“The problem is the teachers unions are decentralized, so you’ve got
people on the national level saying one thing, but on the local level,
the leaders are older, activist teachers who tend not to want much
change,” said one former national labor leader who spoke on condition of
anonymity in order to speak frankly about another union. “Rather than
having a national strategy for improving quality, they’re on the defensive.”
Still, the mayors face some political risks from the unions, which
remain heavy Democratic donors on the state and national level.
In addition to Fenty in D.C., Villaraigosa has also felt the wrath of
the unions in Los Angeles. His pick for school board was defeated last
spring by a candidate backed by the union. The union and the school
board both pushed back against the mayor’s attempt to win direct
controls of the schools.
Confrontations between teachers and mayors come as the public has grown
cool toward teachers unions. In a 2011 Gallup poll, 47 percent of
respondents said teachers unions hurt the quality of education, while 26
percent said they helped. That 2-to-1 margin is a new high point since
Gallup began asking the question in 1976.
“In education, most people believe they aren’t getting anything
anymore,” said Ester Fuchs, an expert in urban politics who teaches at
Columbia University and has worked in the Bloomberg administration in
New York City. “If teacher unions stand in the way of trying new things,
they’re going to be an easy political target.”
Democrats are still more likely to back teachers unions than Republicans
and independents, Gallup found.
While most public school teachers belong to a union, just 7 percent of
private-sector workers do, making it harder for the public to support
pensions, tenure and other benefits they don’t enjoy in their own jobs.
“The teachers unions lost the battle of the op-ed pages,” Kerchner said.
“Up until Randi (Weingarten), there hasn’t been a prominent voice making
the case that what’s good for teachers is also good for kids is good for
America . . . They’ve lost intellectual leadership on the one hand, and
on the other hand, they’re engaged in a political blocking game. It’s a
legitimate tactic, but not one you can use without cost.”
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