In addition to online learning, Democrat’s abandonment of their traditional union allies could put an end to the educational status quo and decimate the teachers unions.

In my October 18th post, I wrote about Terry Moe’s book Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools. I specifically addressed that part of the book in which he builds a scenario for the eventual undoing of the teachers unions. One of the two ways he claims this will happen is via technology, in the form of online learning. The other route to marginalization is the realization by Democrats that education is really a civil rights issue and that they are morally bound to get on board with reform and choice. By adopting this position, they will be abandoning their longtime political allies – the teachers unions.

As with the rapid ascent of online learning, Moe’s second nail in the unions’ coffin is picking up speed. In a recent Huffington Post entry, Joy Resmovits addresses the “new education lobby.”

“It’s ambitious, expansive and, in some cases, modeling itself after sprawling single-issue lobbying organizations like the National Rifle Association and AARP. The groups, which have in large part been created by hedge fund managers and lapsed government officials, count political operatives inside state legislatures and even the Democratic National Committee among their ranks. And they’re using the power of their fundraisers’ purses and sophisticated messaging outfits to push their agendas in local and school-board elections across the country.”

Traditionally, education reform and school choice have been conservative/libertarian causes. Starting with vouchers, a creation of libertarian Milton Friedman in the 1950s, the ideas for education reform, with few exceptions, have come from right leaning think tanks like Pacific Research Institute, Hoover Institution, Goldwater Institute, Reason Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, etc. The policy ideas put forth by these and other similar organizations have formed the basis for many of the education reforms that are in place today.

What is perhaps most interesting about this “new education lobby” that Resmovits writes about is that many of them are Democrats. Yes, Democrats are essentially picking up the ideas put forth by the right and taking them to statehouses all over the country. And the teachers unions are definitely not enthralled with this new development.

Democrats for Education Reform, founded in 2007, has become a potent lobbying force in just a few years. They have set up shop in ten states and their reform efforts are essentially indistinguishable from those on the right. Consequently, they have not escaped the wrath of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City. The union claims that DFER:
• doesn’t sound like Democrats.
• hates teachers.
• knows nothing about education.
• is made up of hedge fund managers (Whitney Tilson, John Petry, et al) and billionaires (Eli Broad, who funds DFER’s sister organization Education Reform Now.)
• is comprised of narcissists.

(Note to reform-minded Democrats – welcome to the world that those on the right have lived in for many years!)

Another example of the Democrat-as-reformer-lobbyist phenomenon is Michelle Rhee, who is a self-described “lifelong, card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat.” After a short, successful and highly publicized reign as Chancellor of D.C. public schools, she left her position after the American Federation of Teachers donated over $1 million to unseat Rhee’s boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, in 2010. Shortly after Fenty’s loss, Rhee founded Students First, an advocacy organization whose goal is to raise $1 billion in ten years. The AFT’s response to Ms. Rhee’s efforts was to put up a smear website called RheeFirst.

Whereas DFER is out to reform the Democratic Party, Rhee will work with anyone or any organization that shares her reform vision.

There are many other Democrats working hard for reform and incurring the wrath of the unions. Kevin Chavous, cofounder of DFER and Chairman of the Board of Black Alliance for Educational Options, Davis Guggenheim, director of Waiting For Superman and Ben Austin, who fathered the first Parent Trigger law, are just a few examples of Democrat’s joining the education reform movement.

Even with this new bipartisan reform effort, the teachers unions are not about to fold their tents and give up any time soon. It’s going to be a long bloody war with some battles being won (Wisconsin) and some lost (Ohio.) In fact, just last week, Dropout Nation’s Rishawn Biddle wrote about the recent release of the National Education Association’s 2010-2011 LM-2 filing, a required Department of Labor annual report. revealing recent political expenditures.

“The numbers are spectacular. The nation’s largest teachers’ union spent $133 million in 2010-2011 on lobbying and contributions to groups whose agendas (in theory) dovetail with its own. This included $255,000 to the Economic Policy Institute, the progressive think tank cofounded by Robert Kuttner and Robert Reich, whose education reports generally take a pro-NEA slant….”

“Among the big recipients of the NEA’s largesse this year were ProgressNow’s affiliates in Michigan and Colorado, each receiving, respectively, $10,000 and $125,000, for education policy advocacy and legislative advocacy activities. ProgressNow, by the way, was one of the key players in ousting school reform-minded Michigan legislator Paul Scott from his statehouse seat earlier this month and has decried Gov. Rick Snyder’s efforts to allow for the expansion of charter schools and school choice….”

“The usual suspects are also on the list: Communities for Quality Education, which has long been subsidized by the NEA, collected $1 million in 2010-2011. Anti-testing group FairTest picked up $35,000 this time around. So are some leading education traditionalists: Parents Across America co-founder) Leonie Haimson’s Class Size Matters picked up $25,000 from the union last fiscal year, while Western Michigan’s Gary Miron (whose rather flawed study on KIPP’s charter schools earlier this year was the subject of Dropout Nation‘s analysis) picked up $5,000. Meanwhile the NEA directly poured $43,000 into the Save Our Schools rally held this past July; this doesn’t include dollars poured in by state and local affiliates.”

With the ability to throw this kind of money around, NEA’s effect on maintaining the status quo with its attendant failing educational policies cannot be exaggerated. So those of us involved in reform will have to be satisfied as long as the ball is being advanced, even if it’s slower than we would like. As writer Louis L’Amour once said, “Victory is won not in miles but in inches. Win a little now, hold your ground, and later, win a little more.”

About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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