Friday, July 13, 2012

NEA and Obama

I'm posting this as a follow-up to Richard's post earlier today, which featured a chart of NEA and AFT contributions to the Democrats and Republicans. (I'm doing this as a separate post because it's longer than the maximum allowed comment length).

Not coincidentally, the current online edition of Education Week, the industry weekly, leads with an article entitled "As Membership Plummets, NEA Retools Mission". What is this retooling? It's to embed even more deeply into the Democratic Party, where NEA -- like most of U.S. labor -- has for decades effectively acted as combination advertising agency, fundraiser, and provider of voluntary (and unpaid) campaign labor.

In the past two years, NEA (the largest union in the U.S.) has lost 100,000 members. Like the other large U.S. teachers' union, the 1.5-million member American Federation of Teachers, NEA has over the past decade -- and especially since Barack Obama's presidency began -- abandoned even its past limited opposition to the corporate agenda for education. Obama, working through his secretary of education Arne Duncan (formerly "CEO" of the Chicago Public Schools and a close ally of billionaire "business model for education" framers Bill Gates and Eli Broad), has never hidden his support for key planks of the corporate agenda: basing teachers' pay on student scores on high stakes test ("merit pay"), charter schools (privatization via back-door vouchers; they receive public money but are privately run and freed from large parts of state education codes that protect the rights of students and teachers); and "national standards" (a code name for increased profits for textbook vendors, software giants, online cyberschools, and test prep mills -- the "Common Core Standards" pushed by Obama / Duncan have been heavily influenced by Pearson (which owns Prentice-Hall and the Financial Times), the Gates Foundation, and Microsoft).

Indeed, the Obama Administration has been so hostile to the needs of public education and teacher unions that even the overwhelmingly leadership-friendly and handpicked delegates arrived two years ago at the July 2010 NEA Representative Assembly (NEA's national convention) in a mood angry enough for passive, team concept NEA President Dennis Van Roekel to start his opening remarks by saying that "this is the worst environment for public education in my memory", criticizing Obama's support for merit pay, and acknowledging that "Obama has put the banks ahead of public education".

Alas, such acknowledgement was not very meaningful, nor did it endure even to the end of that speech. By the end of the speech, Van Roekel warned the delegates that they had to redouble their support for the Democrats (including Obama) "because there's just no alternative".  And almost as soon as the convention adjourned, Van Roekel announced the importance of deepening collaboration with school management and industry, and abandoned still more parts of NEA's long-standing opposition to pay-for-performance.

By November 2010, Arne Duncan and Bill Gates were calling the widespread public education budget shortfalls a "dramatic opportunity" for "increasing educational productivity" by "doing more with less". They were specific, demanding "shared sacrifice": larger class size, deferred school maintenance, eliminating teachers' job security, program cuts, etc.  The NEA's Van Roekel (and the AFT's Randi Weingarten) remained silent or even made supportive cooing sounds as this attack strategy was rolled out.

So it should be no surprise that the Van Roekel leadership turned this year's NEA Representative Assembly into one giant campaign rally for Barack Obama. The Education Week article quotes him as follows:

“We can’t set education policy by ourselves, but we do have the power to influence it. And first on the list—we must do everything we can to re-elect President Barack Obama,” the NEA president said.

Wielding "the power to influence" in this way is leading teacher unions and other public sector unions in the U.S. careening into the same walls hit by the private sector unions 30 or so years ago. The union leadership accepts the inevitability of "shared sacrifice" and "the team concept" of collaboration with management, and despite the bipartisan nature of the austerity attacks remains firmly committed to relying on, embedding itself in, and promoting the Democratic Party.

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