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Why Teachers Unions Are Fed Up with Obama

This is a couple days old, but it's worth paying attention to. The two most powerful teachers' unions blasted the President and his education policies at their annual conventions. In particular, they decried the veto threat the President offered on the war supplemental if the House passed legislation keeping teachers in their jobs, partially offset by cuts to the Race to the Top fund:

In a skirmish last week over federal education financing, the administration and the teachers' unions were bitterly at odds. Last year, Congress approved $100 billion in education stimulus funds, about half of it to help states avoid school layoffs.

With that money now running out, House Democrats proposed spending $10 billion more to shore up school district budgets, paying for it, in part, with $800 million in cuts to Race to the Top and two other competitive grant programs Mr. Duncan created to spur his initiatives. Mr. Duncan and the White House supported the $10 billion in new spending, but objected to trimming the grant programs, infuriating union leaders.

"For the Department of Education to say, ‘Everybody else has to sacrifice, but our pet programs must be spared'- that makes me so angry I don't even know how to say it," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which has often been more supportive of administration initiatives than the National Education Association.

The cuts to Race to the Top would constitute a small percentage - under 20% - of their total funding. But Arne Duncan clearly values bribing states to change their education policies in directions that have not been fully tested, rather than saving teachers and keeping class sizes low, policies which have been rigorously tested and show results. Students perform better when they have a teacher than when they don't, to simplify this debate as much as possible. It makes no sense to hoard money for competitive grants when teachers face layoffs. But clearly the White House and the Education Department doesn't see it that way. In fact, despite the grassroots action from the teacher community, they fully expect the funding to be restored:

E-mail messages pleading for the jobs measure rained down on Congress from thousands of union teachers, and despite a veto threat by the White House, Democrats in the House voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to create the $10 billion school jobs fund and to trim Mr. Duncan's grant programs. The bill must be reworked by the Senate. On Friday, Mr. Duncan shrugged off what appeared to be an administration setback, expressing confidence that lawmakers would eventually find a way to spare Race to the Top.

I'm sure he's quite confident. But that full funding of Race to the Top will most likely come at the expense of up to 140,000 school personnel.

Education leaders have been told by this Administration at every turn that they must bend, shake up their entrenched system and change the status quo. They must sacrifice by changing teacher pay policies, or tenure policies, or charter school policies. But absolutely no such sacrifice must come from the White House on this front. They don't have to meet anyone halfway. They don't have to give up even a sliver of this reform to save teacher jobs. At the base level, that's why teacher unions, which have gone extremely far in the direction of the reformers thus far, are so angry.

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David Dayen

David Dayen is a contributor to The Intercept, and also writes for Salon, the Fiscal Times, the New Republic, The Nation, and more.

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