ED’s “All Hat, No Cattle” Stance on the Unions

(This post also appears at Rick Hess Straight Up.)

Last week, the Department of Education announced plans for a “national education reform conference on labor-management collaboration” to be held early next year, where they plan to “highlight examples of progressive collective bargaining agreements across the country and promote opportunities for management and labor to forge reforms at the state and district level.” Our earnest Secretary of Education, along with AFT chief Randi Weingarten and NEA honcho Dennis Van Roekel, grandly made this announcement down in Tampa.

The most striking thing, to me anyways, was the continuation of Secretary Duncan’s tendency to talk tough in friendly venues and then pander when he’s rubbing knees with Weingarten or Van Roekel. In Texas, there’s a term for this–they say a guy like that is “all hat, no cattle.” I’d vastly prefer that Duncan spent less time talking tough and more time showing some steel when it counts (for Race to the Top aficionados, it might be time to worry about what this means when it comes to holding RTT winners to their grand promises.)

The vision of the administration sucking up to the unions wasn’t lost on anybody. Alexander Russo saw it as evidence that “the Democratic party has decided against an all-out civil war over school reform.” Andy Rotherham snarkily asked, “Wow, is the election really going to be that brutal?” From there, Andy just got tougher on ED’s chosen collective bargaining agreements: “The list of sites they’re highlighting reads like interest group greasing and a set of talking points more than an analysis. Some good ones, for instance New Haven and Denver. But Detroit? Baltimore? Delaware? File those under, respectively, nope, nice try, and not yet. And where is DC? New York? Or how about having KIPP in? Awkward!”

DCPS officials were apparently told not to read too much into being left off the Department’s list of eight “progressive” agreements. Uh-huh. How were these selected, do you think? Isn’t the nationally recognized D.C. agreement–in which Weingarten was personally involved and which passed with 80% of teachers voting for it–as notable an example of rethinking as those in Pittsburgh or Evansville? Did the Department just forget about the D.C. deal?

This is all too cute by half. We see an administration moving to protect its union flank as they head into a tough election season. Anticipating that the Republicans will wind up taking the House and picking up a half-dozen Senate seats in the new Congress, it sure looks like the administration is calculating that it’ll be better off playing to its base on education. That’s consistent with its moves on Edujobs, attacks on for-profit higher education, and studied silence on the aftermath of Fenty’s defeat and Rhee’s resignation.

None of this offers much succor to those hoping for bipartisan efforts on NCLB/ESEA reauthorization, and it might just be raising eyebrows over at Democrats for Education Reform. Though I’m still dubious of the rumor that Diane Ravitch is weighing Duncan’s offer to join ED as a senior advisor. (Just kidding! Just kidding! Just having a little fun. There’s been no such offer–at least as far as I know….)

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