Monday, June 11, 2012

Democratic mayors challenge teachers unions in urban political shift

This Washington Post story by Lyndsey Layton captures a HUGELY important development: Democratic mayors across the country breaking with the teachers unions and standing up for kids (mentions DFER briefly):

As a young labor organizer in Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa worked for the city's teachers, honing his political skills in the fight for a good contract. The union loved him back, supporting the Democrat's election to the State Assembly, City Council and, finally, the mayor's office he occupies today.

But now, Villaraigosa, a rising star in the national Democratic party, has a different view. He calls the teachers union "the one, unwavering roadblock" to improving public education in L.A.

Villaraigosa is one of several Democratic mayors in cities across the country — Chicago, Cleveland, Newark and Boston, among them — who are challenging teachers unions in ways that seemed inconceivable just a decade ago.

"This is a very, very interesting political situation that is way counterintuitive," said Charles Taylor Kerchner, who has written two books about teachers unions.

At a time when most Americans believe that U.S. education is imperiled, and cities are especially struggling to improve schools, the tension between the mayors and the unions is causing a fundamental realignment of two powerful forces in urban politics.

In the clash over what is best for children, adults on both sides are gambling.

The mayors risk turning labor friends into enemies, a lesson D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty learned in 2010 when he lost his seat in part because teachers were enraged by his school reforms. The unions, meanwhile, risk appearing recalcitrant and self-serving, further alienating a public frustrated by failing schools and growing cool to organized labor.

The mayors want a raft of changes. They want to replace the uniform pay scale with merit pay. They seek to expand public charter schools, which are largely non-union. Some want to lengthen school days, requiring teachers to work more hours.

And nearly all of these mayors have set their sights on the one workplace protection that teachers have held central for more than 100 years: tenure.

…But today, tenure makes it nearly impossible to get rid of weak teachers, the mayors say.

"We know how difficult it is to fire a doctor in most of our states — it is significantly more difficult to fire a teacher," said Villaraigosa, adding that the dismissal rate in L.A. is less than 1 percent and 97 percent of the teachers get tenure after two years. "Our current tenure practice is meaningless, so we are challenging it."

The tough talk coming from Democrats has angered many teachers, who already feel under assault from Republicans. "Teacher unions feel extraordinarily betrayed across this country," said Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Many of the mayors are emboldened by reforms promoted by the Obama administration, private philanthropies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a national political action committee and advocacy group.

"All of us, in one way or another are swimming in their wake," Emanuel said, referring to President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

…In Cleveland, Democratic Mayor Frank Jackson has proposed a sweeping education plan that would reset the relationship between the city and its teachers.

Jackson wants to disregard seniority when it comes to firing and is seeking a "fresh start" provision so that future teacher contracts are negotiated from scratch, among other things.

"I don't think Democrat or Republican, pro-union or anti-union, public school or charter school," said Jackson, who is in his second term. "I'm going to have a conversation about educating children. When you do that, all those other things don't matter. "

"I'm opposed to anything that eliminates collective bargaining," Jackson said. "But I'm also opposed to collective bargaining standing in the way of educating children."


Democratic mayors challenge teachers unions in urban political shift

By Lyndsey Layton, Published: March 30 

 Subscribe in a reader