NEA and The Party: The NCLB Saga

You probably read the story: “NEA Slams Obama’s School Reform Plan”.  This is a type of story that occurs predictably after every election:  “Supporters unhappy with something ‘their’ president proposes”. 

 Groups such as unions, that fight for their members’ interests, must inevitably find themselves opposing actions they think are detrimental.  That’s the advocacy business.

 And everyone knows NEA is such a group, right?

 The question is anything but rhetorical.  Consider the ongoing saga of NCLB, the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.

Wikipedia on NCLB:   “Originally proposed by President George W. Bush immediately after taking office, the bill, shepherded through the Senate by Senator Ted Kennedy, one of the bill’s sponsors, received overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress.”

NCLB set a legitimate and laudable goal: improving public schools by ensuring that goals be set and met in reading and math.  It provided considerable funding to accomplish this, and it created credible public scorecards to let the public know how well their schools are doing.

It also included a patently absurd enforcement mechanism, whereby schools were required to improve their students’ test scores by a certain amount (AYP, “Adequate Yearly Progress”).  Then, this year’s quota being met, a higher quota was set for next year. 

So, if a school failed to improve, or improved but not “adequately” to meet its quota, it was subject to various sanctions.  But if it succeeded, it was rewarded with…higher quotas. 

If this model looks familiar, it should be; it is the Soviet Five-Year Plan. 

Ultimately, there are only two long-term outcomes to such a plan.  Either the system figures out how to jigger the reporting of results so they can appear to succeed. Or else everyone fails, sooner or later.  In the Soviet system, everyone was either a Stakhanovite worker, a quota-busting hero of Soviet labor, or else they were saboteurs, trying to undermine the system by underperforming. 

Teachers hate NCLB.  They simply and universally hate it. And in most cases, they hate it for the right reasons.  They know the heartbreak of working their tails off all year, trying everything and anything they can think of to raise test scores, and finally succeeding in raising test scores, only to learn that they have failed; their Yearly Progress was real but not Adequate.  They know that schools are communities, and that everyone – including the kids – suffers when their best efforts are stigmatized as a failing school. 

Conservatives have their own reasons for opposing NCLB, and (especially at the state level) many did.  Their biggest concern was the degree of nationalization (some called it a federal takeover) of schools, which had always been considered the purview of local and state governments.

At best, NCLB is a well-intentioned and well-funded law with a serious structural flaw that needed to be fixed. 

So you would presume that NEA, representing teachers across the nation, would go about fixing it.  And that is what NEA attempted to do.

But NEA failed, repeatedly, to fix NCLB.  The reason is simple.  NCLB was a bipartisan law, and NEA is a partisan union.  At this point, NEA can only think in partisan terms and act in partisan ways.

As Wikipedia states above, NCLB was proposed by President George W. Bush and sponsored in the Senate by Ted Kennedy.  Its principal House sponsor was Representative George Miller (D-Ca.), one of the most powerful men in Washington (despite his relative anonymity).  Check out this photo of the signing ceremony.

NEA lobbied hard against NCLB when it was being considered in 2001-2.  NEA was talking to its Democratic friends in Congress,; after all, Kennedy and Miller had both been endorsed by NEA every time they were on a ballot. But NEA got nowhere with these friends.  (NEA made only a token effort to lobby the Bush administration, for obvious partisan reasons.  Bush was Republican, and NEA was…not.)

So, what does an interest group do when it is stonewalled on a bill that it regards as “the critical legislative issue of the session”?  When the bill’s sponsors turn a deaf ear on such an important matter?  How do you pressure a recalcitrant elected official?

Well, it depends.  In upcoming elections, NEA endorsed Miller in 2002, and again in 2004 and 2006 and 2008; even as NEA continued to fight to amend NCLB, and Miller continued to oppose them.  Kennedy did not run again until 2006; NEA endorsed him. 

And NEA made an all-out effort to defeat Bush, based in large part (at least publicly) on…his support of NCLB.  Among other particularly cynical efforts, NEA organized “NCLB House Parties” where teachers, parents, and others who were concerned about NCLB were invited to talk about the act over coffee.  There, they heard about how bad the “George Bush NCLB” really was, and how it could be fixed only if Bush were defeated.  Miller and Kennedy were not mentioned.

So Democrats get supported despite NCLB, and Republicans get opposed because of NCLB.

 There is a legitimate name for such a double standard: partisanship.  And that is the basic reality. NEA is no longer an independent union, ready to fight for its members without fear or favor.  NEA has become a political organization, a wing of the Democratic Party.  The interests of the party come first.   NEA advocates for the Party.  Within the Party conclaves, it advocates for its members.

NEA now approaches every election as a fight for Democratic control.  It will support friendly Republicans if and only if it can do so without losing party control of the leghislative body.

There is nothing inherently wrong with such an approach, if it is done openly and honestly.  But NEA continues to proclaim itself as an independent, non-partisan advocate for teachers and schools.  And that is no longer true.

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