The Democratic platform on education includes the passage, “We Democrats honor our nation’s teachers, who do a heroic job for their students every day. If we want high-quality education for all our kids, we must listen to the people who are on the front lines.” However, it’s also perhaps the first education platform plank that tentatively dips its toe in the water of using student evaluation as part of the teacher selection process. It’s worded very gingerly: “We also believe in carefully crafted evaluation systems that give struggling teachers a chance to succeed and protect due process if another teacher has to be put in the classroom.”
This dichotomy makes sense if you understand two things. First, teachers make up a substantial portion of the delegates in Charlotte this week. Second, the Obama Administration is committed to education reforms that really stand in contrast to the goals of most teacher’s unions. They have worked around this tension for four years, but in the platform you see it come to a head. Just the fact that the DNC convention is being held in Charlotte, North Carolina, a right-to-work state, gets at this. The platform opposes right-to-work, but the reality of the setting undermines that.
The LA Times chronicles this tension between Democrats and teacher’s unions today. The presence of a film at the convention, which reinforces anti-teacher themes, is the news peg.
A handful of teachers and parents, carrying large inflated pencils, picketed a screening of “Won’t Back Down,” a movie to be released this month starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as mothers, one a teacher, who try to take over a failing inner-city school.
The plot is ripped from the headlines: California has the first “parent trigger” law in the nation, which allows parents to petition for sweeping changes to improve low-performing schools. The first parent trigger attempts have occurred in Compton and Adelanto; the former failed, and the latter faces numerous obstacles.
Parent triggers, along with other emerging efforts, have some Democrats questioning their party’s longtime support of guarantees that public school districts have made to teachers for decades. Those efforts also include merit pay, charter schools, weakening the tenure system and evaluating teachers partly based on their students’ performance on standardized tests.
“There is no longer sort of this assumed alliance between the Democratic Party and the teachers unions,” Michelle Rhee, a leader in the movement, said in an interview. Rhee, a Democrat who is a target of the unions’ ire, discussed the issues on a panel after the film screening here and one at the Republican National Convention last week.
I would object to the characterization of Michelle Rhee as a Democrat, but she might have better standing to reject my credentials at this point. Showing “Won’t Back Down” at the convention, with what I’ve heard is a real caricature of how teacher’s unions operate, is really kind of a last straw. “Won’t Back Down” is financed by conservative billionaire Phillip Anschutz, and promotes a parent-trigger law that almost always puts schools in the hands of for-profit corporations. It’s big money that’s usually behind these education “reforms,” the chance for a corporation to bleed the state in the name of overhauling a failing school. The idea that students come first is a pipe dream. Lest you think that it was just a coincidental screening in Charlotte, it was vetted among DNC and White House officials, according to the Huffington Post.
As I said, the platform dances around this tension in education policy – Race to the Top, the competitive grant program which forced multiple right-wing education changes in the states by dangling federal stimulus dollars, isn’t even mentioned directly. But unless teacher’s unions use some of their leverage and make real moves against the Democrats, you’ll continue to see this policy drift.