Controversy Highlights Democratic Party Split Over Education

Published July 3, 2012 recently dropped two education reform groups from its list of clientele soon after one posted a petition challenging the Chicago Teacher’s Union on the popular progressive website. officials told Stand for Children and StudentsFirst their contracts were terminated due to pressure from the site’s supporters and a resulting potential for lost revenue. is a for-profit company, and some of its funders expressed dissatisfaction it had allowed what they perceived as an anti-union petition.

“We are certainly not anti-union, and we didn’t feel that our petition was either,” said Laura Mann, national marketing director for Stand for Children. “It was also addressed not only to the Chicago Teachers Union but to the Chicago Public School system. We were kind of surprised by the whole thing.”

CTU is threatening a strike this fall that could prevent 400,000 children from attending school. allows organizations and individuals to conduct online petition drives over such issues as gay rights, health, and education. petitions have ratcheted companies into dropping support for conservative groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The controversy reflects not only upon and its political niche, but on the Democratic Party’s education policy rift between liberal progressives and centrist Democrats—a rift that centers on teachers’ unions.

Before the Stand for Children and StudentsFirst incident, managing director for The Center for Union Facts J. Justin Wilson had looked into and its terms of service, and found them expressed thus: “We accept sponsored campaigns from organizations fighting for the public good, and the common values we hold dear fairness, equality, and justice.”

“It would be hard to say that StudentsFirst is not about those values,” Wilson said.

Combatting Special Interests
Democrats for Education Reform is a political action committee founded five years ago to counterpoint teacher’s union and special interest influence on the Democratic Party.

“The National Education Association and its state affiliates and the American Federation of Teachers are the biggest [Democratic Party] funders,” said Gloria Romero, a former state senator and DFER’s California director.

But Romero said neither she nor DFER is anti-union.

“Teacher’s unions have stepped forward at times,” she said. “But today the biggest obstacles have come from teachers’ unions.”

She noted California teachers unions pressured state legislators on June 28 to vote down a bill put forward by state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), designed to prevent teacher sex abuse in light of the Miramonte scandal, a slew of such cases in Los Angeles Unified School District.

Differences of Philosophy
Democratic Party differences on education policy would exist apart from the influence of teachers’ unions because they stem primarily from divergent philosophies, said education policy analyst RiShawn Biddle. Centrist Democrats often support education options, such charter schools—which can be privately operated by companies or communities—and school vouchers.

“For a progressive, anything that’s operated by something other than the government is going to be a problem,” Biddle said. “Companies are, from the perspective of many progressives, I would dare say they are evil. It’s untenable to have the privatization of education.”

Democratic supporters of education reform also advocate for what Romero calls teacher “evaluation systems”—ways of objectively measuring teacher performance so excellent educators are rewarded and poorly performing teachers can either improve or be dismissed.

President Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan are education reform Democrats, Romero said. Their signature education initiative, Race to the Top, pushed states to expand charter schools and tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.

President Obama’s Influence
Obama has also pursued contradictory policies on teacher’s unions. In his early presidential  campaign, the NEA favored other candidates, and reluctantly bestowed its endorsement late in the race in July 2008. The NEA and AFT opposed Race to the Top, but Obama has also repeatedly attempted to stamp out the union-hated but well-performing D.C. vouchers program for poor, minority students.

Both Biddle and Romero take Obama’s election and education policies as a sign of majority pary opinion and an indication of a reform-minded future for Democrats in which teachers’ unions will be forced to negotiate.

“At a certain point, [the NEA and AFT] kind of have nowhere to go. I suppose they could go endorse Mitt Romney, but I kind of doubt they’re going to do that,” Romero said.

Budget Squeeze
Biddle also predicts other concerns will force the Democratic Party to embrace education reform. The party’s recognition of the ties between education and a prosperous economy have already pushed Democrats in the direction of reform, he said: practical necessity will do the rest.

“If you’re a person who wants to expand health care and all kinds of government programs, you can’t do it if you’re paying $1.1 trillion in teacher pension under-funding, and unfunded retired teacher healthcare benefits,” Biddle said.

State healthcare costs are set to increase dramatically, as well, due partly to the Affordable Care Act, he said.

“Since progressives have pretty much agreed that health care is important [and] something that they want to expand, they will have to take on the cost of education,” Biddle said. “And what drives the high cost of education in this country … is teacher’s unions, who have, with the help of state and local government, been able to make teaching probably the most lucrative profession in the public sector.”

Image by Joe Newman.