Relationship Chills Between Teachers Unions, Obama

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US President Barack Obama greets teachers after awarding the National Teacher of the Year 2010 Sarah Brown Wessling, from Johnston High School, Johnston, Iowa, on the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 29, 2010.

Notably absent from both national teachers unions' annual meetings this week are President Obama and his education secretary. According to the head of one of the unions, if the administration does not rethink its policies, it will be on a collision course with teachers and their unions.

The nation's two largest teachers unions are holding their annual conventions this week and have been saying some harsh things about the Obama administration's education agenda. Some teachers are even calling for Education Secretary Arne Duncan to resign.

This seems to suggest that despite the unions' support for many of the administration’s proposals, the relationship has begun to sour. But if Duncan is worried about the angry rhetoric coming from the presidents of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, he certainly won't admit it.

"I just have huge respect for them as individuals. I know they have very challenging jobs, but they're the right leaders at the right time," Duncan says.

The feeling was not mutual among NEA delegates in New Orleans earlier this week. At their annual meeting, they called for Duncan's resignation and cast a vote of "no confidence" in the administration's school reform agenda.

For good reason, says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel: Instead of overhauling the politically unpopular No Child Left Behind law, he says, the Obama administration has not done enough to rescind the law's worst features.

"The narrowing of the curriculum, the overemphasis on tests, the labeling and punishment of [school] districts is not working and the students are losing," Van Roekel said.

So here's how Van Roekel suggests the administration can get back on the unions' good side: reward schools for raising kids' academic performance, no matter how small; stop relying on tests as a single measure of students' academic growth; and absolutely stop supporting the use of test scores to evaluate teachers or decide how much they should be paid.

"I think that decision is best made at the local level [and] not mandated and micromanaged at the federal level," Van Roekel says.

If the administration does not rethink its policy, says Van Roekel, it will find itself on a collision course with teachers and their unions.

And that is not entirely a bad thing, says Margaret Spellings, former secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration.

"I do think there are some political advantages in characterizing the unions as "about the status quo," and I would commend the president and the secretary for some of the stances that they've taken -- they're very courageous for Democrats to take and I would not characterize them as anti-teacher. I would characterize them as pro-student," Spellings says.

That's inside-the-beltway politics, says Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT. The real question is: Can this administration work with teachers to push fair and meaningful reforms?

"You can't do it without listening to the voices of teachers -- that's part of why you hear the anger in my voice -- because to demonize and scapegoat them or their unions will end up a failed policy," Weingarten says.

Some say this growing rift, however, could further weaken teachers unions more than it does President Obama.

"The political power of teachers unions is vastly overrated right now," says Joe Williams, head of the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform. Williams says the AFT and NEA are angry because the president hasn't pandered to teachers unions.

"You can look back at the president as a candidate speaking before the unions making it clear about his support for charter schools, his support for things like performance pay. It was not a closeted agenda," Williams says. "And for people to act right now like they feel betrayed by this president only suggests that they were not paying attention when he was speaking."

Williams and others agree that in the face of growing union opposition, the Obama administration will have to look to business leaders and civil rights groups to anchor a new political coalition to get things done. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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