President Barack Obama's reelection bid got an early boost on Monday with an endorsement from the National Education Association, a 3.2 million member teacher's union that will marshall votes and deploy its fundraising clout to help Obama remain in office.
But beneath the vote backing Obama's candidacy lies a deep discomfort with his policies. Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have sought to hold teachers accountable through test scores, have enacted aggressive policies for failing schools and have pushed to expand charter schools. Teachers unions have decried these policies for unfairly punishing teachers and jeopardizing their job security while diverting resources from public schools.
Like so many of my colleagues in education I will reluctantly support Obama--but I will have grave misgivings when I do so, David C. Berliner, a professor emeritus of education at Arizona State University, wrote in an email, adding that value added models for teacher evaluation only make such testing more of a part of education.
As for Berliner, for some educators a vote for Obama represents the lesser of two evils. This is particularly true given an aggressive drive in the Republican Party to curtail union bargaining rights and teacher salaries as a cost-cutting measure. Buffeted by a struggling economy, the union has seen its membership plummet by some 30,000 members.
I think the alternatives are worse than where Obama and Duncan have been, said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College. Therefore, I think it is likely that both the institutional muscle of the teachers unions and the voting strength of teachers unions, insofar as they vote that interest, will follow the Democratic ticket.
Some of the other measures the NEA voted on underscored the frustration. For the first time, the body amended its policy to support new mechanisms for teacher evaluation that include gauges of student progress. But in a separate vote, voters also endorsed an upcoming Save Our Schools march in Washington, D.C. that seeks to repudiate policies like overreliance on testing as a measure of teacher accountability. And the Representative Assembly passed a resolution that lambasted Duncan, charging that the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Duncan are part of the problems we face every single day.
The California State Council of Education, the California chapter of the NEA's policymaking body, lodged a symbolic vote against endorsing Obama prior to the full convention. Dennis Kelly, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, said the vote aimed in particular at the Race to the Top program, which awarded states education grants if they pursued reforms like shuttering or overhauling failing schools. Kelly cited a school in Central Falls, Rhode Island that had its entire faculty dismissed as a sign of a deep and abiding problem with this Department of Education and the direction it's going in.
The things that are at the core of a lot of peoples' distrust of the Department of Education are around the Race to the Top, the concept that the education of our children is dependent on winning a race, Kelly said. That is such the wrong picture to project to our children about learning: a situation where some children are going to be automatically branded losers.
Kenneth Bernstein, a teacher and an NEA building representative who blogs about education for the website Daily Kos, pointed to evidence of additional fractures. While the 72 percent of voters who voted to endorse Obama would be a resounding mandate in a presidential election, Bernstein pointed out that it is the lowest level of support the NEA has expressed for a presidential candidate since 1988. He wrote that many of the teachers he spoke with disliked the fact that the endorsement effectively ceded what little leverage the union had with the administration.
But the union retains a crucial piece of leverage: the extent to which it mobilizes support for Obama's re-election campaign. By endorsing Obama more than a year before the election, the NEA gave itself a healthy headstart. Now, Bernstein said, educators will be watching Obama closely to see if he makes the grade.
I think unless he signals that he knows what's going on in education this endorsement will be hollow, because the people who make it work on the ground will not put in the work, Bernstein said.