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Teachers' Unions Uneasy with President Barack Obama

Unions expected more from a Democratic president

by Nia-Malika Henderson

A skirmish between powerful teachers' unions and President Barack Obama over nearly $5 billion in education spending is shaping up as a preview of the battle to come over No Child Left Behind in Congress early next year.

But the tables are turned: now the unions are worried that Obama, a Democratic ally, is going to be just as tough on them as President George W. Bush, a longtime foe.

The dispute adds teachers' unions to a growing list of key Democratic constituencies that have been frustrated by Obama's lunges toward the political middle, along with gay-rights activists upset Obama won't lift the ban on gays in the military, and Latino officials who say Obama is slow-walking immigration reform.

So far, both the unions and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have tried to avoid a full-on collision, and the unions are showing new flexibility in accepting previously unheard-of moves like stricter teacher evaluations.

But they're also making it clear they'll only go so far with Obama, who was booed at two teachers' union conventions when he was a candidate.

One of the little-noticed aspects of Obama's presidency is how much his approach to education mirrors Bush's - heavy on testing and data-collection, with support for charter schools, teacher evaluations and merit pay.

That's what Obama and Duncan are stressing in upcoming decisions over how to award the nearly $5 billion in "Race to the Top" funds, with final guidelines due in November.

And the reform efforts seen in Race to the Top are what some education observers expect Obama to seek in reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law, which administration officials said will be developed in the coming months.

The unions tried to shoot down some of those concepts in formal responses to the Race to the Top program - but all signs are that Duncan's Education Department isn't backing off significantly.

And clearly, the unions expected more from a Democratic president.

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, gave the administration an "A for effort," but has some concerns.

"This administration doesn't want to be ‘Bush Three,' but some of the things that are coming out...simply charter schools and measurement... that's what the previous administrations pushed," Weingarten said, referring to Bush and his father, the president.

"Data is important and charter schools can be great incubators for instructional practice and labor relations practice, but if it ends up just becoming measurement and some charter schools, that's not public education," she said.

Said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association: "Obviously we hope that some of the proposed changes will be reflected in the new guidelines. There could be major changes or minor changes, I just don't know. But I don't think there will be major changes."

Announced in July, the nationwide competition offers states a chance to get a windfall of funds if they meet certain eligibility criteria. Among the 19 requirements are developing and implementing common statewide standards and data systems and increasing the availability of charter schools.

Already, cash-strapped states are moving to comply. Eight states, including Illinois, Ohio and Tennessee, have lifted caps on charter schools. California and Wisconsin are moving to lift restrictions linking test scores to teacher evaluation.

Initial guidelines for the money drew about 1,100 responses, with many offering support, yet some of the most heated comments came from teachers' unions.

In a 26-page letter, the NEA said they found the "top-down approach disturbing" and that the emphasis on data amounted to "ignoring states' rights to enact their own laws and constitutions."

"We have been down that road before with the failures of the No Child Left Behind, and we cannot support yet another layer of federal mandates that have little or no research base of success, and that usurp state and local governments' responsibilities for public education," the group's letter said.

While the Education Department in June tore down the red school house with the words No Child Left Behind above the door, and the law will be renamed, some are concerned that the requirements for Race to the Top are a blueprint for reauthorization of NCLB.

In his most recent speech about the No Child law, Duncan praised the effort, saying that it "helped expand the standards and accountability movement."

"Today, we expect districts, principals and teachers to take responsibility for the academic performance of their schools and districts. We can never let up on holding everyone accountable for student success," he said.

The education department is holding "stakeholder" meetings to get a lay of the land for NCLB, now referred to as ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the 1965 law underpinning the legislation. Duncan has said that he understands that some think NCLB is a "toxic brand" and that it emphasized tests too much in measuring student achievement.

But Obama and Duncan aren't the only Democrats pushing a new way of providing education. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) - who worked with Bush on NCLB - says he thinks Obama is on the right track with his reform package and fully expects a similar proposal to make up Obama's push for new education legislation to replace No Child.

Miller battled with unions over teacher pay in the last round and said he will sit down near the end of the year to plan the way forward on NCLB.

"The forces for using good data systems for accountability, and for measurements and better assessments and performance pay that recognizes talents, that's where we are going," Miller said. "Unions will argue that they have been there in those areas, but they are now trying to get engaged on those fronts. The historic positions are in many ways are melting away."

Indeed, much of the political battleground has shifted, since NCLB passed with bipartisan support in 2001 and then the reauthorization died in committee in 2007 due to the combination of a weakened Bush, a powerful union backlash and little congressional will to get something done.

"The characters who are on the battlefield weren't party to the former discussion. That's a problem. To me, the main impediment is the loss of Ted Kennedy, which is not to disparage anyone. But he was hugely influential and productive. He was a giant," said Margaret Spellings, Bush's education secretary. She recalled how the Massachusetts senator Kennedy helped Bush win over skeptical Democrats, though Kennedy later expressed regrets about a lack of funding for No Child Left Behind.

For Bush, the challenge was convincing Republicans, who once called for abolishing the Education Department, that some federal standards were warranted for local school districts. Now Obama and Duncan must get unions on board.

But it's a sign of just how much the political climate in the education world has shifted that ideas that Bush once sponsored that seemed almost radical - like testing and data-collection - have become part of the norm.

In that way, the unions have been fighting a rear-guard action - trying to preserve a way of doing things that largely ended with Bush, analysts say. But they are also adjusting. The AFT just awarded grants to schools for new teacher pay and evaluation models, and the NEA has ordered that their locals waive contract language that prevents high quality teachers from staffing high-need schools.

Both the unions and Duncan are pointing to a contract vote in New Haven, Conn., this week where a local teachers union agreed to stricter job evaluations and new rules that lift protections for weaker teachers as an example of the new flexibility on the part of unions.

"What we have now is a Democratic president who is using the words ‘fire teachers' so the labor movement is starting to say they want to get on the bus and help steer, rather than get run over by it," said Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, a non-partisan think tank. "Anybody thinking they are going to fight the last war again is misunderstanding the climate."

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