The Education Wars: Teachers 'Unions and Reform Advocates Are Locked in Aright over the Future of Schools. Now the Battle Lines Have Started to Blur

Article excerpt

Like any successful negotiator, Randi Weingarten can sense when the time for compromise is nigh. On Nov. 17, after the Election Day dust had cleared, Weingarten, the president of both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and its NewYork City affiliate, the United Federation of Teachers, gave a major speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. In attendance were a host of education-policy luminaries, including Weingartens sometimes-foe Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern, National Education Association (NEA) President Dennis van Roekel, and Rep. George Miller of California.

"No issue should be off the table, provided it is good for children and fair for teachers," Weingarten vowed, referencing debates within the Democratic coalition over charter schools and performance pay for teachers--innovations that teachers' unions traditionally held at arm's length.

The first openly gay president of a major American labor union, Weingarten is small--both short and slight. But she speaks in the commanding, practiced tones of a unionist. In speeches, newspaper op-eds, and public appearances, Weingarten, once known as a guns-blazing New York power broker, has been trying to carve out a conciliatory role for herself in the national debate over education policy. It is a public-relations strategy clearly crafted for the Obama era: an effort to focus on common ground instead of long-simmering differences.

Notably absent from the audience for Weingarten's post-election speech was D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. In the summer of 2007, Rhee, a Teach For America alumna and founder of the anti-union New Teacher Project, took office and quickly implemented an agenda of school closings, teacher and principal firings, and a push toward merit pay. These actions met with their fair share of outrage from both parents and teachers and especially from the local teachers' union. At the time of Weingarten's speech, Rhee and the AFT-affiliated Washington Teachers' Union (WTU) were stalemated over a proposed new contract for teachers.

In 2009, the major fight on education policy isn't between Republicans and unions, or even Republicans and Democrats, but rather within the Democratic coalition. And infighting can be the most vicious kind. On one side are the traditional players in education politics--the two major teachers' unions, the NEA and the AFT. On the other are union-skeptic education-policy wonks like Rhee, sometimes referred to as "reformers." (The unions dispute that terminology, arguing that they too support the improvement of American schools.) Union-lobbying efforts focus on greater funding for public schools and social services more generally and on opposition to the punishing mandates of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law. The self-designated "reformers," on the other hand, are often enthusiastic about NCLB and testing and are intent on pursuing new management policies, such as merit pay, public charter schools, and even private-school vouchers. They believe, broadly speaking, that free-market principles applied to public schools will improve student achievement, especially in low-income communities of color.

Weingarten's speech was an olive branch of sorts. In her remarks, she advocated for a controversial program in which master teachers help train novices and work with administrators to determine whether teachers should be granted tenure. She also came out in support of school-wide differentiated pay. While "merit pay" is a code word for evaluating teachers based upon their students' test scores--and is roundly rejected by both major teachers' unions--"differentiated pay" awards salary bonuses to every teacher when the school's overall academic performance improves, or offers extra pay for teaching hard-to-staff subjects, working in rough schools, or taking on responsibilities such as mentoring new teachers. …