The fall of teachers union
As the two big national teachers unions prepare for their conventions this summer, they are struggling to navigate one of the most tumultuous moments in their history.
Long among the most powerful forces in American politics, the unions are contending with falling revenue and declining membership, damaging court cases, the defection of once-loyal Democratic allies — and a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign portraying them as greedy and selfish.
They took a big hit Tuesday when a California judge struck down five laws they had championed to protect teachers' jobs. The Supreme Court could deliver more bad news as early as next week, in a case that could knock a huge hole in union budgets. On top of all that, several well-funded advocacy groups out to curb union influence are launching new efforts to mobilize parents to the cause.
Responding to all these challenges has proved difficult, analysts say, because both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are divided internally. There's a faction urging conciliation and compromise. Another faction pushes confrontation. There's even a militant splinter group, the Badass Teachers Association.
Leaders of both the NEA and AFT have sought to rally the public to their side by talking up their vision for improving public education: More arts classes and fewer standardized tests, more equitable funding and fewer school closures. Those are popular stances. But union leaders can't spend all their time promoting them: They must also represent their members. And that's meant publicly defending laws that strike even many liberals as wrong-headed, such as requiring districts to lay off their most junior teachers first, regardless of how effective they are in the classroom.
The result: an unprecedented erosion of both political and public support for unions. And no clear path for labor leaders to win it back.
"People increasingly view teachers unions as a problem, or the problem," David Menefee-Libey, a politics professor at Pomona College who studies education politics. That's a striking shift, he said, because "for decades the unions were viewed as the most likely to contribute to the improvement of public education."
In states such as California and New Jersey, teachers unions have often been the biggest campaign spenders. Democrats counted themselves lucky to have their support, not only because of the financial resources but because the unions commanded armies of foot soldiers available for door-to-door canvassing, phone banks and other campaign grunt work all summer long.
The unions, in turn, could count on Democrats to have their backs.
In 2007, a handful of wealthy donors teamed up under the umbrella Democrats for Education Reform. Their explicit goal: to finance the campaigns of Democrats willing to break with the teachers unions by supporting policies such as expanding charter schools, weakening tenure and holding teachers accountable for raising student test scores.
It worked. Big names like former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker have sided with DFER. So have scores of state legislators and local school board members.
The self-styled reformers quickly developed a narrative that let them claim the moral high ground in public debates. Teachers unions, they said, were out to protect their own members first and foremost. They didn't have kids' best interests at heart.
Unions have responded, with outrage, that teachers pour their hearts and souls into helping students and know better than any millionaire campaign donor what schools need. "There's not a tension between student interest and teacher interest," said Jim Finberg, an attorney for the California Teachers Association. "In fact, they are aligned."
But reform groups have put so much money into their efforts — and won the backing of so many high-profile Democrats, up to and including President Barack Obama — that their rhetoric has largely prevailed, said Menefee-Libey, the Pomona College professor. "They have the brand identity as the people most interested in improving public education," he said.