Unions’ Positions Unheeded On ESEA

By Julie Blair — November 06, 2002 16 min read
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The congressman was uninhibited about requesting help from the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions in crafting the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.

He asked the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers for prescriptions for turning around failing schools and drew on their research on professional-development programs for teachers.

He also sought their aid in defining both “highly qualified” teachers and “scientifically based” research, two hot-button terms in the reauthorization of the most comprehensive federal law on K-12 education.

“We rely on the influence of these people not so much because they have money and power, but because we’re not the experts,” said the congressman’s aide. “They have a lot of knowledge about what’s going on out there.”

Interviews with Capitol Hill aides, lobbyists, and public-policy experts found that a number of members of Congress turned to the NEA and the AFT, as they have in the past, for advice in writing the sweeping legislation. Yet few took it this time around.

Interviews also revealed a widespread perception that the unions were averse to change in many instances, or at least unwilling to offer meaningful alternatives. As one Democratic aide put it: “Americans were crying for education reform, and both the White House and Congress meant to deliver— with or without the help of the unions.”

Consequently, few union fingerprints are visible on the revamped Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The measure, championed by President Bush, passed late last year with bipartisan majorities in both houses—87-10 in the Senate and 381-41 in the House.

The unions, though an important force when it comes to shaping education policy, can point to only a handful of wins and many more losses on what may be the most significant piece of federal precollegiate legislation to come along in decades. Despite polite press statements praising some aspects of the law, the unions’ attitudes were so lukewarm that neither endorsed the measure that could have major ramifications for their millions of members for years to come. Now, the unions must look to the states to find ways for the law to be carried out more to their liking.

“I would say the legislation is a major defeat for the unions and the teachers they represent,” said Jack Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research group, and a former education aide to House Democrats. “Clearly, the unions are the most powerful force in elementary and secondary education, but the tenor of the times is to demand more accountability ... so they were fighting the spirit of things.”

The reauthorized ESEA includes Title I, the federal government’s flagship program for disadvantaged students, as well as a new system of accountability for public schools. Among its many mandates: annual reading and mathematics tests in grades 3-8, demonstrable progress by states and districts on academic proficiency for all students within 12 years, penalties for low- performing schools that don’t improve, and the placement of highly qualified teachers and paraprofessionals in every classroom.

On top of those momentous changes, the spending bill that accompanied the ESEA provided the largest dollar increase ever in federal education aid: The Department of Education’s budget grew by $6.7 billion in fiscal 2002, to nearly $49 billion that year.

In spite of the overwhelming support the package received on Capitol Hill, the unions more or less shrugged.

Charlotte Fraas, the director of legislation for the 1.2 million-member AFT, summed up the sentiment of both unions: “In the end, we didn’t overtly support it; we didn’t object to it. There were things we found were positive and things we would have changed.”

Yet the two unions had begun brainstorming strategies to make their mark on the ESEA long before lawmakers began debating the reauthorization three years ago, back in the Clinton administration.

Building Momentum

Elected officers, in-house policy experts, and lobbyists first worked together to define their legislative priorities, then aimed to plant union-backed ideas, programs, and wording directly into the federal code.

The NEA and the AFT rely on both their own research and the work of others in the field to make their arguments credible. If the unions are perceived as experts, federal lobbyists note, lawmakers will pay attention to them.

The NEA, for example, produced documents showing the dollar increases every congressional district would receive if Congress provided what is deemed “full funding” of the federal share of special education costs, a pet project of both unions, according to Kim Anderson, a lobbyist for the 2.7 million-member NEA.

“Every member of Congress wants to see an increase in federal money coming into their district, so that was incredibly important in maintaining strong support,” she said, “and garnering momentum that ultimately, in the end game, got us more money.”

Lobbyists become so expert on complicated issues, in fact, that lawmakers sometimes defer to them over their own staffs, bringing almost unfettered access for knowledgeable representatives of outside groups.

A lobbyist who asked not to be named recalled seeing Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the NEA, at work. “I’ll never forget being in a markup [of legislation] with Senator Patty Murray,” a Washington state Democrat, said the lobbyist. “Joel Packer was standing behind her, and her staffer just stepped back. It gets so technical, her own staff couldn’t answer her questions.”

The unions also relied on members in state and local affiliates to help them lobby lawmakers in their home districts for the provisions they wanted—or didn’t—in the ESEA.

Throughout the debate, for instance, the NEA turned to its list of 90,000 to 100,000 “cyber lobbyists,” Ms. Anderson said, blasting e-mails to them regularly just before crucial points in the negotiations in the hope that they would communicate with their home-state politicians.

What’s more, the unions provided substantial contributions to candidates who favored their stances on the measure. For example, the NEA provided Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore with $2 million during the 2000 election cycle, while the AFT gave him $1 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

In addition to that money, the NEA’s political action committee spent $5.1 million in 2000 overall, making it the eighth-highest-spending PAC in the country, according to an analysis by Mike Antonucci, who publishes an independent newsletter on union activities. The AFT, meanwhile, spent $4.2 million in PAC contributions, the 12th-highest amount. According to federal law, PAC money can be spent on candidates who are running for federal office, national and state party committees, and for administrative costs.

“Money is this elixir which is so fungible it has a disproportionate influence,” said James W. Guthrie, the director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy and a professor of public policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Even with all those tools at their disposal, teachers’ union lobbyists found themselves playing defense in the contest to shape the ESEA. The previous renewal of the Great Society- era law had occurred in 1994, and was originally due to be revised in 1999.

Losing Ground

The debate on the reauthorization began in 1999 with President Clinton still in the White House and the unions confident he would be an advocate for them on issues such as federal aid for smaller class sizes.

Work on the legislation dragged on, however, and was put off until after the 2000 elections. The pro-Democratic unions’ fortunes sagged when George W. Bush was elected president. Suddenly, they found themselves estranged from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

While the new Republican president had worked with the AFT’S state affiliate as the governor of Texas on several pieces of legislation, neither national union had endorsed him during the presidential race.

Mr. Bush had made education an integral part of his platform, but supported ideas the unions vehemently opposed: federally financed tuition vouchers, for example, and a plan called “Straight A’s,” favored by congressional Republicans, that aimed to convert a majority of ESEA funding into block grants in exchange for negotiated performance requirements between states and the Department of Education.

All the while, President Bush articulated a vision of accountability that differed in key ways from the positions of the unions.

The first challenge, union insiders said, was to quash vouchers and Straight A’s. Vouchers for private schooling, they contended, undermined public education, while the other initiative would wrest decisionmaking away from local governments and give it to governors who knew less about the needs of schools.

The unions also recognized they would have to work hard to massage an accountability plan mandating the use of standardized-test scores for students to judge the performance of schools. While both groups say they endorse the concept, they differed from each other on the way the law should be constructed.

NEA leaders opposed the use of such exams as a single measure to weigh school achievement. They worried that judgments would be made without considering other important variables. The NEA suggested that the law require states to take into account not only test scores, but also student-attendance rates, percentages of certified teachers, statistics on high school graduates and dropouts, and other indicators.

The AFT, meanwhile, believed that standardized tests could be a sufficient indicator, so long as Congress would ensure the exams were of the highest quality, aligned with state curricular standards, and properly financed. AFT officials also wanted to guarantee such tests would supplant, rather than supplement, the current battery of exams given to students.

Both unions wanted to break down student-performance data and average that information over three years in an attempt to improve its accuracy.

In addition, the unions worked to incorporate provisions into the law that would provide “full funding” for special education. They also saw the inclusion of federal support for both school construction and class-size reduction as crucial.

Tallying the Scorecard

Many observers credit the unions with making good on their first objectives: Neither a voucher plan nor Straight A’s is part of the new law, though it does provide a publicly financed tutoring option for students in certain poor-performing schools, and collapses a handful of federal programs into block grants.

“The power of the unions in Washington is not so much in crafting, but in stopping,” said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. “The teachers always have one or two things they want, and they get it.”

The unions singlehandedly won those debates, agreed one Democratic Hill aide.

“That was such an easy victory,” the aide said. “The conservatives came in on this bill with two top priorities— vouchers and block grants—and the NEA and AFT delivered ... the votes on the floor necessary to stop them.”

Where the organizations had the most influence, though, observers say, was in the big infusion of money slated for education in the ESEA’s companion budget bill. In the final budget, the Education Department received $48.9 billion—$4.4 billion more than the president’s request. Since then, that amount has been increased during the appropriations process to $49.9 billion. (“Education Money Focus of Budget Quagmire,” Oct. 9, 2002.)

“The question at the end of the day is, what would have happened to these issues if the NEA and AFT were absent?” said Arnold F. Fege, the director of public engagement for the Public Education Network, a Washington-based coalition of advocacy groups for school improvement in low-income communities. “It would have been a much more difficult battle to fight.”

Observers disagree, though, on how much leverage the unions actually had.

“Clearly, each of the groups has influence,” said Sandy Kress, the Texas lawyer who was Mr. Bush’s chief education adviser during the reauthorization, “but not any one of them controls the agenda.”

Others maintain that the unions were locked out of the significant action in the last stages of work on the No Child Left Behind law that emerged from the long ESEA renewal process.

“There were bits and pieces where people impacted this, but on many of the big issues, there was a surprising amount of consensus on the part of the Hill,” said Richard Long, who lobbies for the National Association of State Title I Directors and the International Reading Association. “A lot of this was done with a high degree of secrecy, which allowed the process to go forward.”

The final legislation was written behind closed doors by the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and House education committees, according to David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee. That group, he said, included Mr. Boehner; Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.; Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.; and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.

“By and large, the process of writing, negotiating, and passing last year’s historic education bill took place independent of the Washington lobbying community,” Mr. Schnittger said. “There was a recognition at the beginning of the process that if something was actually going to happen, it needed to be built from the ground up by Republicans and Democrats sitting in a room and working together.”

A more common occurrence, say some Hill watchers, was the haggling that played out during negotiations around the new law’s teacher-quality provisions. The unions made headway on some specific areas, but lost ground on others.

The No Child Left Behind Act mandates that all educators be “highly qualified” by the end of the 2005-06 school year and defines such professionals as those certified or licensed by their states and able to demonstrate a high level of competence in the subjects they teach.

While both unions supported that idea, they objected successfully to the testing of veteran educators to demonstrate that competence and won an alternative that allows states to write their own definitions of “highly qualified.” It was unfair, they said, to require teachers to take further tests after having already proved themselves in the classroom. Instead, the unions argued, current teachers should be evaluated using measures other than testing.

But the unions lost on a provision that allows teachers who work in charter schools to remain unlicensed as long as state law permits it. Teachers must comply, though, with the other requirements of the legislation.

There were other defeats as well. NEA and AFT representatives watched in frustration as legislators ultimately dismissed their requests for a school construction program and consolidated funding for a class-size-reduction initiative into a block grant. Districts can now use the class-size money for other purposes.

Moreover, Congress declined to pick up the share of special education funding that school advocates have long sought from the federal government.

By all accounts, the NEA, of the two unions, suffered the bigger setbacks, in part because it disagreed fundamentally with the way the testing provisions—one of the most far-reaching changes—were laid out in the law.

The AFT, while more satisfied with that provision, still did not perceive it to be a best-case scenario. Union officials declined to elaborate on the issue.

In the end, the new ESEA “was probably a draw [for the unions], but that in and of itself is notable,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy for the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute. He served as a special White House assistant for domestic policy in the Clinton administration.

The unions lost on some of the issues because they didn’t put forth sound alternatives, said one Democratic aide who did not wish to be identified. Often, the aide said, they simply pushed to keep the status quo.

“This ESEA was very much about reform, and they were the industry to be reformed,” added Amy Wilkins, a policy analyst for the Washington-based Education Trust, a nonprofit group dedicated to raising achievements for all children. “They weren’t seen as advocates for kids, and to be fair, their job is to advocate for their members.”

Pressing Ahead

The unions say they will continue to do just that at the state level, where the federal law is now playing out.

The No Child Left Behind Act, after all, is largely a framework for the states, and it will be state officials plus those in the District of Columbia, who will be responsible for teasing out the details. The unions, by their own admission, are already working to shape the law at that level.

The United Federation of Teachers, the AFT’S largest local affiliate with 140,000 members, is pushing hard to change the way New York state is defining low-performing schools, said union Vice President David Sherman. While the law requires such troubled buildings be identified, the UFT, which represents teachers in New York City, is lobbying to add additional categories that would highlight specific challenges. For example, a school on the low- performing list may be serving the majority of the population well, but failing with students whose first language is not English, he said.

“We’re trying to modify the way schools are described,” Mr. Sherman said. “We want a more intelligent list, and frankly, one that is more honest.”

As written, the law could ruin a school’s reputation, he said.

The NEA plans to spend $4.8 million of this year’s $267 million national budget to help its state and local affiliates understand and refine the law. Delegates to last summer’s NEA convention instructed officials to document the consequences of the ESEA, inform members of its requirements, communicate the law’s “negative aspects” to the public, lobby for federal legislation to amend the act, and support local school board candidates who offer alternatives to high-stakes exams. (“NEA Tackles ESEA,” Reporter’s Notebook, July 10, 2002.)

“We’ve been doing an enormous amount of information sharing and training,” said the NEA’s Mr. Packer. “Most of the decisions are going to be made at the state and local levels, and our members ... need to be able to be intelligently engaged with their school boards, school administrators, and chief state school officers to influence what works best.”

The AFT, meanwhile, has done little more than inform its members of the law, said Alex Wohl, a spokesman. The organization, he said, assumes its members at the state and local levels are working to influence the implementation of the law in conjunction with the union’s priorities.

Since the law passed, the 330,000-member California Teachers Association has formed what it calls a teacher-liaison program, an effort to dispatch rank-and-file teachers to nearly every meeting in the state having to do with the implementation of ESEA, said Barbara E. Kerr, the vice president of the NEA affiliate. The intent is to ensure teachers’ voices are heard and influence state policy, she said.

Those who are familiar with how the unions operate expect nothing less from them than to peck away at changing the law.

“They misjudged the game,” said Ms. Wilkins. “But they’re smart enough to regroup and recalculate. Anybody with any sense is not writing them off.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Unions’ Positions Unheeded On ESEA


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