School & District Management

AFT No Longer a Major Player in Reform Arena

By Vaishali Honawar — January 30, 2007 12 min read
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The American Federation of Teachers has changed.

The union itself insists it is still very much on the path blazed by Albert Shanker, the AFT’s late, legendary president, under whom it forged a happy marriage between its labor agenda and education reform.

But in a political arena that has, for over a decade, been dominated by Republicans and the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, change has been inevitable for the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union which, like other labor groups, tends to heavily back, and be backed by, Democrats.

Challenges have also come from within.

The union has lost several of its most prominent leaders over the past decade. It has struggled with scandals at major locals. And an internal survey last year showed low morale among its own employees.

Although overall membership has continued to grow, big losses have also hit the 1.3 million-member union, such as the decision in 2005 by its Puerto Rico affiliate to sever ties and the depletion of the New Orleans local following Hurricane Katrina.

Since the victory of several union-backed congressional candidates in the November elections, AFT leaders have expressed hope for the future in enacting changes to the No Child Left Behind law and getting long-pending labor legislation passed in the Democratic-controlled Congress. The union’s organizing wheels are also spinning into overdrive with stepped-up recruitment efforts.

Still, observers question whether the AFT has the ability or drive today to influence education reform in the way that it once did. They point partly to the political climate and partly to the union’s current leadership, which, they contend, is too closely focused on labor issues.

Disempowered Union

An internal-communications survey at the AFT headquarters that was disclosed by the blogger and teachers’ union watchdog Mike Antonucci in August offered a window on the thoughts and morale of AFT staff members.

Some employees, apparently affected by the presence of a Republican Congress and White House, questioned the national union’s effectiveness.

“People on the Hill [and in the press] used to wait for what AFT had to say before they acted, before they put out a particular piece of legislation, before they wrote a particular piece. They just would not think of acting without checking with AFT in a certain sphere of issues. That’s not the case anymore,” said one staff member.

American Federation of Teachers Facts

Membership: 1.3 million teachers, paraprofessionals and school-related personnel, higher education faculty, nurses and other health-care professionals, local, state, and federal employees, and retired members

State Affiliates: 43

Local Affiliates: About 3,000

Employees: 335

Budget, 2006-07: $135 million

President: Edward J. McElroy

SOURCE: American Federation of Teachers

“We don’t have friends. We don’t get tickets to the inaugural ball anymore. We don’t have friendly bills passing in Congress very often,” said another.

“No one seems to know what anyone is doing,” complained yet another staffer.

That survey is part of a larger, ongoing exercise at the union that includes surveys of affiliate leaders and members, as well as focus groups, with the goal of improving the AFT’s communications with its members, officials said. The only reason the survey was conducted, they said, was to take stock of changing communications needs because of growth in membership and staff.

Outside the union, the perception of its effectiveness as an education reformer has changed as well in the past few years.

Observers give points to the AFT for continuing to focus on school improvement, at least to a greater extent than the larger National Education Association. They cite the union’s “Let’s Get it Right” campaign that sought changes in the NCLB law, while the NEA chose to simply criticize the now 5-year-old act.

Many also point to the AFT’s educational research and dissemination program, which helps locals build the capacity to deliver high-quality professional development services, either on their own or in collaboration with their school districts.

Nevertheless, they add, the union’s voice is not as strong as it once was.

“Unions as a whole have been disempowered,” said Cindy Chance, the dean of the college of education at Georgia Southern University. “They have lost power in the last several years and in the last administration because of the political climate.”

Strong evidence of that appeared when the No Child Left Behind law was passed by Congress in 2001 with bipartisan support, but with few, if any, fingerprints of the two national teachers’ unions on its mandates. The law instituted a host of requirements on student achievement, teacher quality, and other matters.

The absence of a leader like Al Shanker, some say, has also made a difference.

In his column, “Where We Stand,” which ran as a paid advertisement in The New York Times for 27 years, Mr. Shanker threw out a multitude of ideas that influenced a generation of education policymakers, including a push for national standards.

“Al Shanker was quite unique in that he managed to combine a traditional background with roots in the labor movement and the role of a pre-eminent education reformer. You don’t often find those two things together,” said Matthew Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve, a Washington-based group formed by business executives and the nation’s governors to promote academic standards.

But, added Mr. Gandal, who once worked for the AFT, the current environment is a difficult one for AFT leaders. Since “NCLB came along in the last several years,” he said, “so much is driven by the federal government that the [AFT] has gone from proactive to reactive.”

When Mr. Shanker died in 1997, his successor, Sandra Feldman, continued his reform-minded tradition. Her emphasis was on early-childhood programs. In her seven years at the helm, Ms.Feldman also worked to merge the AFT with the NEA, a change that was approved by the smaller union and leaders of the larger one, but rejected by delegates to the NEA’s Representative Assembly.

When Ms. Feldman, who died in 2005, left the union presidency in 2004 because of ill health, observers worried that her successor, Edward J. McElroy, a member of the AFL-CIO executive council and the secretary-treasurer of the AFT, might be too much of a “labor man” to continue the AFT’s reform agenda.

That reputation continues to dog Mr. McElroy 2½ years into office. While Mr. McElroy, many say, is active in his role as a labor leader—he serves on several committees of the AFL-CIO, the major umbrella group for organized labor—they add that he has failed to be as vocal on school improvement measures as his two predecessors, hurting the AFT’s progressive image.

A ‘Silent’ Leader

“He is silent on those issues that were a priority for both Shanker and Feldman,” said Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based advocacy group. “There is no question that the AFT is not as strong as it was under [Shanker’s] leadership.”

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a public-policy research group in Washington, agrees Mr. McElroy has “taken a greater interest in labor issues at the AFL-CIO—it is a more prominent role than Al Shanker played at the AFL-CIO.”

Decade of Changes

Al Shanker

Al Shanker, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, dies; Sandra Feldman succeeds him.

The AFT and the National Education Association design the “Principles of Unity” plan to guide a merger of the two unions. Later that year, AFT members vote for a merger, but NEA delegates reject it.

Barbara A. Bullock

Ms. Feldman calls for universal preschool at the AFT’s annual convention; the union says it will take a more critical view of the newly passed No Child Left Behind law. The AFT releases a report sharply critical of charter schools.

Pat L. Tornillop Jr.

In separate incidents, the presidents of the Washington Teachers’ Union (Barbara A. Bullock) and United Teachers of Dade (Pat L. Tornillo Jr.) are found to have stolen millions of dollars in union funds to pay for personal expenses. The AFT steps in to restore financial stability and bring members back to the locals. Ms. Feldman announces that she will not run for re-election because of her failing health.

Edward J. McElroy

Edward J. McElroy is elected president. The 35,000-member Puerto Rico union votes to disaffiliate from the AFT.

Sandra Feldman

The AFT announces the Let’s Get it Right campaign to improve the No Child Left Behind law. Sandra Feldman dies. Hurricane Katrina essentially disbands the 4,700-member United Teachers of New Orleans.

Internal survey reveals dissatisfaction among staff members.

Also, Mr. Shanker “was someone who was constantly coming up with education policy proposals, and Ed McElroy has made that a lower priority,” said Mr. Kahlenberg, who is working on a book about Mr. Shanker that is slated for release later this year.

Union watchers paint the election of Mr. McElroy as something of a stop-gap arrangement: He was a safe choice to lead the union after Ms. Feldman retired early. Meanwhile, Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT’s largest affiliate, the United Federation of Teachers—as Mr. Shanker and Ms. Feldman had been before her—was likely being groomed for the job but not quite ready when Ms. Feldman stepped down.

“You bring in Ed, and he doesn’t have to be philosophical. And he’s perfect for [increasing] membership. Plus, he’s an older man, so he’s not going to be a long-term threat to the line of succession,” said Mr. Antonucci.

AFT insiders and sympathizers, however, rush to defend Mr. McElroy. They contend that he has continued to promote reform, although in a style different from his predecessors’.

“His expertise is within the domain of organized labor and unionism. … I have found his demeanor and candor and charming and folksy style very effective with members,” said Adam Urbanski, an AFT vice president and the president of the Rochester Teachers Association in New York.

“He has built a team around him of other leaders and people who have experience on the reform side to keep the organization on a cutting edge,” said Mr. Gandal of Achieve, pointing to the fact that Mr. McElroy brought in Antonia Cortese, perceived as a leading forward-thinking voice in the union, for the central role of the union’s executive vice president. Ms. Cortese, who comes from the New York state affiliate, tends to be front and center in responding to policy issues.

“She is very active and thoughtful of education reform issues,” Mr. Gandal said.

Mr. McElroy is seen more as a “fix-it guy,” most appropriate to lead the union at a difficult time for the labor movement.

While growth in public-sector unions is inching up after several years of decline, the labor movement overall has been in decline for decades now, especially in the private sector. The AFL-CIO received a blow in 2005 when several unions, including the Service Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, left the umbrella organization.

Teachers’ unions have also been confronted with a host of labor issues in the past few years, trying to raise salaries, negotiating health-insurance plans in a time of rising health costs, and keeping states from axing or restructuring traditional pensions.

Despite the setbacks, the AFT, over the past two years, has added 80,000 new members under Mr. McElroy’s leadership, although it lost more than 40,000 in Puerto Rico and New Orleans.

And Mr. McElroy points out that there are 22 states that do not allow collective bargaining by public employees. “If they allowed it, we would have more growth,” he said.

The president makes no apologies for being accused of swinging too far toward bread-and-butter issues. “When Al Shanker was president, he was a major proponent of collective bargaining for teachers. That was the way for more professionalism for teachers, for the ability of teachers to improve their voice in schools,” he said during an interview last month.

Besides, Mr. McElroy says he’s been behind school improvement efforts since his days in Rhode Island. While the president of the state teachers’ union there, the affiliate became the first outside New York to have a full-time professional-issues director on the staff, he said.

These days, one of his ongoing priorities, Mr. McElroy said, is to bring AFT members’ voices to every leader in Congress, so that their experiences shape the federal education agenda, and already the union is facilitating such meetings between members and their representatives.

This year, the union will press for changes to how adequate yearly progress is measured in schools under the No Child Left Behind Act, and for making the federal government live up to what the union sees as its broken promises to finance schools sufficiently to carry out the law’s mandates.

Local Leadership

AFT officials are quick to say the union has not suffered greatly because of the absence of a nationally prominent leader.

“When there are differences in a leader’s expertise, the organization finds ways to accommodate by the stepping up to the plate by others for various functions,” said Mr. Urbanski, pointing to the large number of locals led by progressive presidents who have worked closely with their school administrations on innovative initiatives.

Over the years, many of them have pushed for significant changes, such as the establishment of the first union-led charter schools in New York City, teacher peer review in Toledo, and a merit-pay plan for teachers in Minneapolis.

In fact, one of the greatest strengths of the AFT, supporters say, is its decentralization of power.

But even there, the union has suffered setbacks. Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers and one of the union’s most progressive voices, died in December. Earlier in 2006, Louise Sundin, the president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, was defeated by a candidate who said she had become too cozy with the school administration.

Some observers worry that even the progressive AFT local leaders have in the past few years lacked a collective national voice.

“Influential people like Mooney, Urbanski, and Sundin were very powerful at the time that Al Shanker was president,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a professor of education at Harvard University. “There was a shared influence that they had, both in their local districts and nationally.” That is missing today, even with the continued presence of thoughtful and responsive local leaders, she added.

In recent years, the AFT also has had to deal with two of the biggest scandals to rock teachers’ unions. Presidents Barbara A. Bullock, of the Washington Teachers’ Union in the nation’s capital, and Pat L. Tornillo Jr., of United Teachers of Dade, based in Miami, were accused of stealing millions of dollars in local union funds to pay for personal expenses. In both cases, the parent union stepped in to take over the locals and oversee a long and painful process of restoring financial stability and regaining the trust of members.

Return to Reform

Despite the setbacks and concerns over leadership—or perhaps because of them—the union appears to have, in recent months, embarked on a vigorous exercise to reposition itself within the Shanker halo.

Already it is citing victories. Earlier this month, the union celebrated the U.S. House of Representatives’ adoption of a federal minimum-wage bill, and cuts in interest rates for student loans and efforts to lower Medicare prescription-drug costs, all issues the AFT has lobbied for.

Meanwhile, an NCLB task force made up of top local AFT leaders has been brainstorming to come up with recommendations for the law’s reauthorization, which is due this year, said Tor Cowan, the AFT’s director of legislation. And Mr. McElroy has met with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the new chairman of the Senate education committee.

Activity has stepped up elsewhere in the union, too, particularly in its “brain trust”—the education issues department, which last year lost to retirement its vocal and prominent director, Joan Baratz Snowden.

In December, the AFT released a report decrying the state of school facilities nationwide, and another criticizing the school system in posthurricane New Orleans, made up mostly of nonunion charter schools.

And then, for the latest issue of its quarterly publication, American Educator, the union enlisted the noted education historian Diane Ravitch for a ringing defense of teachers’ unions.

In a commentary titled “Why Teacher Unions Are Good for Teachers—and the Public,” Ms. Ravitch maintains that in today’s education climate, unions protect teachers from “ill-conceived instructional mandates, intolerable conditions, and poor compensation.

“Teacher unions around the country continue to play important roles in protecting the rights of teachers, especially in the current climate of school reform,” Ms. Ravitch writes. “We need independent teacher unions to protect teachers’ rights, to sound the alarm against unwise policies, and to advocate on behalf of sound education policies.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as AFT No Longer a Major Player in Reform Arena


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