Thursday, September 24, 2009

Nation's Teachers Unions Feel Squeezed by Some Former Allies

Unions continue to be battered by the Democrats, and still they stand 100% in lock step behind their candidates... go figure!! Read on.

By Rob Hotakainen
Published: Monday, Sep. 21, 2009 - 7:05 am | Page 16A
Last Modified: Monday, Sep. 21, 2009 - 7:53 am

WASHINGTON – When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed merit pay for teachers and lifting the cap on charter schools, the head of the California NAACP stood by his side.

And when the Los Angeles school board voted to approve a plan that could turn over a third of its schools to private operators, Latino members and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa led the charge.

The nation's public school teachers are feeling the squeeze from all sides these days, and some of the heat is coming from unlikely sources: minorities and longtime Democratic allies.

One of them is President Barack Obama, who is irking teachers by suggesting that student test scores be used to judge the success of educators.

The pressure is particularly intense in California, where U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the state has "lost its way" with public schools.

In an attempt to improve them, the Obama administration is threatening to withhold federal stimulus money if the Golden State does not rescind a state law that prevents the state from tying test scores to teacher performance.

None of this is exactly what teachers had in mind when they knocked on doors to help elect Obama.

"It takes more than the ability to fill in bubbles to be considered an educated person," Marty Hittelman, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said in a letter to Duncan. "We thought President Obama understood that."

As the battles intensify, longtime political alliances are shifting, said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute, a nonprofit public policy center at California State University, Los Angeles.

"They're in flux. There's no question about that," he said, adding that "teacher unions feel somewhat chagrined" with what they're hearing from Washington.

David Sanchez, president of the 340,000-member California Teachers Association, said teachers had high hopes for Obama but that so far there has been little change.

Indeed, when it comes to education policies, he said it's hard to distinguish Obama from his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who placed a premium on high-stakes student testing.

"To be perfectly honest, it's disappointing again," Sanchez said. "Our perception is it's more of the same, and that's not good, because we thought we were going to be able to change something, make some true reform in public education."

Ironically, the teacher unions find themselves opposing some of their former members.

Alice Huffman, the NAACP's president since 1999, helped lead fights against school vouchers and merit pay when she worked as an organizer for the CTA for 13 years. Her thinking has definitely changed, which is why she was standing next to a Republican governor last month.

"The only place the NAACP can be is with this governor," Huffman said. "If the teacher unions put a better proposal on the table, we would stand with them."

For Huffman, the battle is personal. She said too many inner-city minority children are stuck in failing schools and that immediate and revolutionary changes are needed.

"I have watched this for 20 years," Huffman said. "And I have nieces and nephews that have come out of the public schools that can't read, can't write, will never be employable. This is happening right here. … Something profound has to happen. We can't wait another decade and another decade while people tweak with it."

In Los Angeles, Villaraigosa turned against the local teachers union to help push a school-choice plan that was approved last month. It will allow private operators to submit plans on how they'd run 250 schools, including many that failed to meet federal benchmarks on state tests. United Teachers Los Angeles, Villaraigosa's former employer, is opposed to the plan, saying it's the first step toward privatizing the school district.

In Sacramento, state legislators will soon meet in a special session to consider Schwarzenegger's "Race to the Top" plan. Among other things, it would allow merit pay and more charter schools while permitting the state to use test scores to evaluate teacher performance.

John Kaighn

Jersey Benefits Advisors

The Kaighn Report