[Marxism] Democratic mayors challenge teachers unions in urban political shift

Louis Proyect 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 
decade ago.

“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 
years: tenure.

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 
personal reasons.

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 
Teachers Union.

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 
its teachers.

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 
labor-management cooperation.

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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