Whither the NEA?

I’ve never been to the annual conference of the National Education Association and I’ve never regretted it, but it would have been fun to be a fly on the chandelier at last week’s shindig in Denver.

For starters, the delegates voted to ask Education Secretary Arne Duncan to resign. Similar resolutions had been introduced at previous NEA conferences but never passed. Media coverage indicates that it was Duncan’s (muted, even ambivalent) response to the Vergara court decision in California that “broke the camel’s back.” Education Week’s ace journalists note that Duncan has for some time served as flak catcher for the NEA’s mounting unease with various Obama administration policies, enabling the union to “shoot the messenger” rather than denouncing a President that it ardently supported in both 2008 and 2012. (Duncan scoffed at the resolution.)

Then Dennis Van Roekel, outgoing from the NEA’s presidency after six long, slow, boring years, gave a long, rambling valedictory speech. It wasn’t surprising that he attacked Michelle Rhee—but the other “corporate reformers” whose “onslaught” he described include Democrats for Education Reform!

Do you share my sense that perhaps the historic coupling of the NEA and the Democratic Party is loosening a bit?

Which sense was reinforced by a third event at this year’s convention: accompanying her overwhelming election as the next NEA president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia has made clear in interviews that among her missions—above all, “winning back public trust” for teachers—is loosening the partisan bonds and beginning to support whichever candidates will do the most for teachers, even including Republicans!

That impulse is apt to strengthen after Monday’s announcement by the Education Department that it will begin to “enforce” the long-standing but widely ignored NCLB mandate that every student be provided with an “effective” teacher. States will have nine months to develop and submit “comprehensive educator equity plans.” Although the feds have so far been coy as to exactly what these must contain, how they will be reviewed and judged, and what exactly will be done to assure compliance, the concept is that states must henceforth ensure that their best teachers are placed in schools with their neediest students. No, not a new concept. Groups such as Education Trust and the Center for American Progress have argued for years that states and districts must find ways to get their most effective teachers in front of their poorest and most disadvantaged pupils, and it’s evident that the Obama administration is finally responding.

But the unions won’t like this move one bit, either, because among their most prized victories via legislation and collective bargaining has been the right of many of their members to decide which school they will teach in. Seniority, tenure, bumping rights, LIFO—all of these policies make it easier for teachers to choose (and remain in) the schools they want and harder for administrators to assign them—especially the most senior and likely most effective among them—to schools where they might do more good in classrooms with more challenging (but needier) kids.

In short, another policy collision is at hand between teacher unions and the Obama team. Whether one is looking at executive actions like this, statutory moves (such as we’ve seen at the state level in Wisconsin and Indiana), or courtroom holdings such as Vergara, hard-won union victories are being undone.

How will Ms. Eskelsen Garcia respond? She’s a formidable individual with a colorful, varied past many talents. Indeed, it’s hard to think of anyone more different from the colorless Mr. Van Roekel. She’s outspoken, quotable, energetic, and generally impressive. She cannot abide the use of test scores to evaluate teachers. She’s an ardent fan of the Common Core State Standards. She’s savvy and strategic. She’s almost certainly going to rival Randi Weingarten as a public figure—and to give palpitations to all (regardless of party) who don’t advance what she sees as the rightful—and, in her view, inseparable—interests of teachers and kids.

– Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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