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Union Leaders Miss Bus as Union Bus (Thankfully) Misses Me

Usually I’m reluctant to cross into the intersection of education policy and national politics. But when I do, I lean heavily on the trusted big people in my life to walk me across the busy lanes of scary-looking traffic. The aftermath of the NEA Assembly in Denver is one of those times when I’m reaching out and reaching up for a hand.

My Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow took on the matter with a Greeley Tribune op-ed last week. He set up the 2009 NEA Assembly as a point of comparison, with candidly expressed union priorities put on center stage.

Retiring NEA counsel Bob Chanin laid down the line that better results for students “must not be achieved at the expense of due process, employee rights, or collective bargaining.” As Ben wrote in his column, that line in the sand expresses why union leaders are so concerned about a couple of court cases that threaten their status and bottom line.

Interestingly, Andy Smarick wrote a very similarly-themed article for the Fordham Institute about the same time. He noted that the NEA’s response to the legal setbacks has been “positively martial,” and that “the forcefulness of this response may prove counterproductive for union morale, membership, and credibility.”

In particular, the union’s vocal attacks on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan caught an outsized share of the media attention on the events in Denver. Insightful Dropout Nation commentator RiShawn Biddle plants a flag in the ground, making a strong case that the episode demonstrates how far NEA influence has sagged:

Four decades ago, the NEA wouldn’t have even had to even go so far as issue a call for Duncan’s resignation. It had more than enough influence at the federal level to beat back all but the most modest of reform proposals. Thanks to the role the NEA and the AFT has long played as the biggest financiers of political campaigns at both the state and federal levels, the two unions could merely call in a favor from a senator or representative to weaken (if not always block) any administration’s reform plans. The strong ties the two unions had to Democrats and some Republicans in the executive branch also meant that the unions could kill off the most-radical of reform plans before they moved beyond bull sessions.

The article is a worthwhile read especially for those who could use a thumbnail historical recap of the union’s slide. Most significantly, Biddle highlights the potent zinger Duncan delivered back to the NEA: “I always try to stay out of local union politics. I think most teachers do, too.” Ouch!

In other words, the NEA often has a credibility gap within its own membership, which reflects a point Ben made in his op-ed. Many, many teachers are not in lockstep with the NEA. The more the grip can be broken on the union’s power to protect poorly-performing teachers and to coerce unwanted dues and fee payments, the better for students and for the education profession.

A key question going forward is: Will NEA adapt, or continue to play the hard line?

Still wielding some significant power, union leaders nonetheless are really missing the bus on these issues. Meanwhile, I’m just glad to have made it across the street with the union bus missing me.