Obama Throws a Gut Punch to the Teachers Unions

Obama Throws a Gut Punch to the Teachers Unions

Harlem Children's Zone

A funny thing happened on the way to President Obama’s “Promise Zones.” He stepped off track and delivered quite a smack to the teachers unions. In rolling out his newest anti-poverty program, Obama pledged federal support for five targeted communities, which share high unemployment and poverty and cited as a model the Harlem Children’s Zone.

That neighborhood initiative, led by founder Geoffrey Canada, is best known for bringing charter schools to Harlem. The Promise Academies have become the cornerstone of the community’s renaissance. Why? As Obama pointed out, “Last year, a study found that students who win a spot in one of the charter schools score higher on standardized tests than those who didn’t.” It’s that simple. But don’t expect the teachers’ unions to agree.

Related: The Crushing Racism of Low Expectations

No one has been a greater thorn in the side of the teachers unions than Geoffrey Canada has. He was the hero of the stunning film Waiting for Superman that ripped the education status quo. The film provided statistics about the inability to fire teachers and exposed the infamous “rubber rooms” in New York where disgraced teachers are put “on hold” but not dismissed, at an annual cost of $65 million.

Canada, who attended Obama’s presentation on the Promise Zones, has railed against the continuing failures of our public schools. He has dared to say, “If you are a lousy teacher, you should be fired.” He has lambasted the education industry for refusing to innovate, for pursuing the same approaches that haven’t worked for 50 years and that continue to leave millions of children behind.

Talking about the teachers unions to England’s Education Secretary Michael Gove, Canada once said, "Our charter schools were not unionized. My contract with my teachers is fair and is two pages. The union contract is 200 pages. You cannot manage your business when you cannot make any decision without going back to 200 pages worth of stuff.” 

Further, Canada said, "So that is inflexible. It kills innovation; it stops anything from changing. The only thing that we can do is what we did last year, and last year was another failure. So that to me makes no sense."

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It makes no sense to most people – and especially to those concerned about children whose only ticket out of poverty is a decent education. Liberals, led by President Obama, are decrying a decline in social mobility in this country. We all know that the best shot at upward movement for those born into the lowest income brackets is graduation from high school and a college degree.

To quote a Brookings study, “Without a college degree a child born into a family in the lowest quintile has a 45 percent chance of remaining in that quintile as an adult and only a 5 percent chance of moving into the highest quintile. On the other hand, children born into the lowest quintile who do earn a college degree have only a 16 percent chance of remaining in the lowest quintile and a 19 percent chance of breaking into the top quintile.” That’s powerful.

Why would President Obama deliver such an affront to the teachers unions? First, he is no longer running for office (though sometimes it’s hard to tell).  Early on, President Obama challenged our broken education system, bringing on board as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who had established himself as a reformer when heading Chicago’s schools. Duncan targeted teacher accountability as a key element in turning around our schools, incurring the wrath of the NEA and UFT. But, seeking reelection, President Obama had to woo the disaffected unions; as a result, he slow-walked his education agenda. 

Second, he’s reading the polls, which show a declining number of Americans thinking that the unions are a positive force in our schools. The ongoing and embarrassing plunge in our students’ achievement level (and reality checks such as that delivered by Canada’s film) may finally have come home to roost.

Related: Parents Pull the Trigger on Incompetent Teachers

Membership is slipping for the NEA, the country’s largest labor group, which has lost more than 7 percent of its members since 2009, reducing its rolls to fewer than 3 million. The recession and consequent layoffs, the ability of teachers in states like Wisconsin and Michigan to opt out of membership and the growth of the charter school movement have all taken their toll, along with the country’s waning affection for Big Labor.

The teachers’ unions face another looming challenge – declining student enrollment—especially in labor-friendly states in the northeast. According to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, the number of students graduating high school peaked in 2011. Though we may yet see slight gains in some future years, the outlook is dim. “In the next peak year, 2025, the numbers will only be 3 percent higher than the class of 2011 – a difference of only about 100,000 graduates nationally,” the report said. In the Northeast, the prospects are worse. From 644,000 high school grads in 2011, the total will slump to 576,000 in 2028.

Unions want help—allies are lending a hand by proposing to ramp up pre-K education. While this program, championed by liberals such as New York City’s new mayor Bill de Blasio, might boost achievement for at-risk kids – it is part of Canada’s initiative as well -- it is also likely to add union jobs. In de Blasio’s case, we are skeptical about his enthusiasm for pre-K. Bucking popular opinion, and even the president’s views, de Blasio has declared war on charter schools. He is not on the side of the children. Perhaps President Obama and Geoffrey Canada will help him see the light.

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