Like the Labour party in New Zealand the Democrats in the US are well thought to be captured by the teacher unions…but times are changing:
In a major shift, education reformers are now influential at the highest levels of the party once dominated by the teachers unions.
Michelle Rhee is accustomed to having to insist she’s a Democrat. “It’s funny,” she tells me, “I’m not just a Democrat — I feel like I’m a pretty lefty Democrat, and it is somewhat disappointing when I hear some people saying, ‘She’s not a real Democrat.'”
Rhee, the controversial former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor known for her hard-charging style, has worked with Republican governors to push her reform ideas in states across the country. Her ongoing pitched battle with the teachers unions has put her at odds with one of the Democratic Party’s most important traditional constituencies.
Yet there are signs that Rhee’s persona non grata status in her party is beginning to wane — starting with the fact that the chairman of the Democratic convention, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, spoke at the movie screening Rhee hosted at the convention earlier this week. Another Democratic star, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, spoke at the cocktails-and-canapes reception afterward. Across the country, Democratic officials from governors like Colorado’s John Hickenlooper to former President Clinton — buoyed by the well-funded encouragement of the hedge-fund bigwigs behind much of the charter-school movement — are shifting the party’s consensus away from the union-dictated terms to which it has long been loyal. Instead, they’re moving the party toward a full-fledged embrace of the twin pillars of the reform movement: performance-based incentives for teachers, and increased options, including charter schools, for parents.
The inroads made by the education reformers go all the way to the top — to President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the “Race to the Top” initiative that required states to make reforms to get federal education funds — and they amount to a major shift for the Democratic Party on one of its signature issues. “These are some of the most high-profile Democrats out there,” Rhee says, also mentioning Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter, and her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. “They are taking on the unions. They are fighting for what they believe in. It definitely signals a new day.”
Cutting the apron strings from the teacher unions is the single best thing any political party can do. In doing so you force them off their comfortable, ever expanding posteriors:
“I think this notion that America is the land of equal opportunity and anybody can be successful as long as they work hard and do the right thing — those are Democratic ideals,” Rhee adds. “The most liberal Democratic thing that you could do is get on board with school reform, in my opinion.”
To many Democrats, embracing education reform is the only way the party can retain its traditional advantage on education, which Republicans have had increasing success portraying as a wasteful example of big-government excess. Perhaps nowhere is the new consensus more evident than in the way the unions are now scrambling to get in front of a parade that has already left without them. When I call the head of the American Federation for Teachers, Randi Weingarten, to get her take, she insists that it’s the unions who are leading efforts to reform education.
Phee is copping flack because of her advocacy for parental control over schools:
Just as Democrats have to stand up to the unions, she says, Republicans must stand up to Tea Party types who want to get the federal government out of education policy and roll back funding. “Both parties have to be cognizant of ensuring they don’t fall prey to the special interests within their party,” she says.
Rhee, who also hosted a movie screening at the Republican convention in Tampa — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was there — believes the parties are closer than they generally admit on education issues. “Let me give you an example,” she says. “One of the things Romney says in his white paper, he criticizes the Obama administration, he says we need to start to tie federal dollars to reforms. Well, that is exactly what Race to the Top did — not only that, but that never happened in the Bush administration. The first time federal dollars have been tied to reform happened under the Obama administration.” And while Romney has accused Obama of being captive to the teachers unions, that’s clearly not the case, Rhee adds.
The movie, “Won’t Back Down,” is a schmaltzy but effective drama about a working-class single mom, played by Gyllenhaal, struggling to get her daughter out of her uninspiring second-grade class in a failing school. It’s a propaganda film for another of Rhee’s pet projects, so-called “parent trigger” laws — the controversial measures in some states that allow activist parents to band together and wrest control of struggling schools from local authorities.
It might be a propaganda film but many parents are frustrated with the state fo education. But the unions are still fighting against accountability in schools:
But for the activists who would like to keep Rhee and her ideas out of the Democratic Party, it’s clear that it’s already too late. The approach she’s selling, aided by her big-money backers and a slick, Hollywood-bolstered publicity effort, has caught on too widely to be dismissed as a conservative trojan horse.
Hundreds of people attended the convention movie screening, and in a show of hands afterwards, nearly all said they were Democrats; many wore delegate credentials around their necks. As they streamed out of the theater, I caught up with Maureen Stapleton, a delegate from Michigan, who told me she’d found the film and ensuing panel discussion inspiring. “Being a Democrat doesn’t mean we have to stay traditional in our views,” she said. “We’ve got to be open to new ways of doing things. If we focus on children, not adults, I think we can make great strides.”
Stapleton is a Michigan state representative and former Detroit schoolteacher. In her state legislature, she worked with Republicans to pass tenure and accountability measures. Did she face a backlash, I ask? Stapleton smiles. The unions, she says, put their full force behind her Democratic primary opponent.
“Was there a backlash?” she chuckles. “Well, I was defeated.”