Bradford: Teachers Unions Exploited Ed Reform Split Over DeVos While Never Losing Focus
When future history books are written, the confirmation fight of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will be remembered for its notable aspects: the nomination of a true outsider who supports school choice in all its forms, and the historic tie-breaking vote by the vice president to break a 50-50 deadlock in the Senate.
However, there are important lessons to be learned from the aftermath of this fight. These lessons include how to stay focused, how to confuse and co-opt your opposition, and how to take advantage of the deep divides among your disorganized resistance. The countrys two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, skillfully taught these lessons to those of us on the political left who work in the field of education reform.
But how did this happen?
If there was a "Never Trump" camp within the Republican party, the opposition to Trump was even stronger and more fortified within the Democratic party. Many Democrats saw Donald Trumps rise as a threat not only to traditional Democratic supporters, but also to the core ideologies that define the party, such as feminism, equity, immigration, and tolerance.
After the intense battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, most Democrats rallied behind Clinton. This included Democrats of all stripes and progressives within the education reform movement, despite Clintons unclear stance on charter schools, which was a departure from her previous support.
The leaders of the teachers unions took a more calculated approach, endorsing Clinton early on, even though their members were deeply divided between supporting her or Sanders, and even between supporting a Republican or a Democrat (Trump gained support from union households). Having failed to endorse a winning candidate in the past four presidential elections (they did not endorse President Obama), the NEA and the AFT desperately needed a victory.
Clintons defeat was shocking to both teachers unions and left-leaning reformers, but they responded to the crisis in different ways. The teachers unions, faced with Trumps talk of school choice and in the wake of a failed ballot effort to lift the Massachusetts charter cap, immediately opposed him and choice programs in general. Although there may be criticisms of the behavior of teachers unions, it is clear that their focus never wavers – they exist to protect their members.
On the other hand, reformers of all political persuasions, particularly those identifying as Democrats, lacked a clear sense of purpose. Many saw the election result as a triumph of racism, sexism, or other issues, and were deeply affected by it. Unlike the teachers unions, their focus shifted from policy goals such as school choice and higher standards to issues of identity and affiliation. The question changed from "Can we create better schools?" to "How can we work with this administration and the people in it?"
However, not all left-leaning reformers felt this way. Some argued that any progress should be embraced, albeit cautiously given the volatile nature of the moment. Others pointed out that uncomfortable collaboration was common in the pre-Obama era and had actually led to a "golden era" of change during Obamas presidency. They also acknowledged that certain contentious issues, such as Trumps immigration policy, were beyond the scope of the Department of Education.
Ultimately, the disagreements between these two groups and their inability to resolve them were overshadowed by the actions of the teachers unions.
From the moment Eva Moskowitz, the founder of New York Citys successful Success Academy charter school network, was mentioned as a potential nominee for secretary of education, the teachers unions sprang into action. They saw Moskowitz, a staunch advocate for school choice and accountability, and a critic of the United Federation of Teachers, as a disastrous choice. Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools and a long-time target of teacher unions, also faced opposition. None of this came as a surprise.
The nomination of Betsy DeVos from Michigan brought about an intensification of the divide among left-leaning education reformers. DeVos, a Republican influencer and supporter of vouchers, tax credits, and charter schools, was not aligned with the career organization heads or progressive school reformers. This caused a split within the left-leaning reformers, as some were not in favor of the policies she supported.
On the other hand, teacher union leadership found new allies and appeared optimistic amidst the ongoing conflict between reformers. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised the efforts of DFER (Democrats for Education Reform) for their strong advocacy for children.
Despite the unions aligned support for Hillary Clinton, her defeat did not deter the collaboration between reformers and unions. Some individuals within the divided left of education reform had voted for Clinton despite the potential dangers. They recognized the opportunity for progress amidst the uncomfortable situations they faced.
While the reformers were divided on DeVos, the unions were united in their opposition to her nomination. Those who believed in working with DeVos saw it as an opportunity to advance choice and reform. However, their views were overshadowed by the vocal critics who saw supporting DeVos as a betrayal of the Democratic partys reform agenda. The unions nationwide efforts against DeVoss confirmation only deepened the divide, turning the issue into a defining aspect of party politics rather than education policy.
Supporting DeVos was seen as crossing a line for reform-minded leaders, despite her moderate stance compared to other nominees. Even Democratic leaders who had previously worked with DeVos, such as Senator Cory Booker, joined the marathon of opposition speeches as a last-minute attempt to halt her appointment. Bookers change of heart, possibly driven by his presidential aspirations and desire for union support, was discouraging for many.
As Vice President Pence cast the deciding vote, the unions fell silent, having suffered a significant defeat. Meanwhile, the anti-DeVos movement shifted its focus to opposing Senator Jeff Sessions, who was considered too racist to be a federal judge. This highlighted the discrepancy in priorities, as the fight against DeVos overshadowed the potential consequences of having Sessions serve as attorney general.
While the reformers and unions were preoccupied with the Department of Educations Office for Civil Rights under DeVos, civil rights issues were slipping away unnoticed. Sessions, known for his controversial views, posed a greater threat at the state and local levels, compromising the freedom and security of minority and immigrant groups. This loss went unnoticed by those who were fixated on the fight against DeVos.
In retrospect, the collaboration between the more partisan education-reform left and the teachers unions can be seen as a lesson in staying focused. The unions clear priorities allowed them to wield influence over the least powerful position in the presidents cabinet. However, this choice came at a cost to every American, including school children, as their attention was diverted away from more impactful positions like attorney general.
Overall, the divisions within the education reform movement and the unions priorities have led to missed opportunities and potentially detrimental consequences for the advancement of education policy and civil rights.
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