By Liana Heitin and Stephen Sawchuk
Delegates to the National Education Association’s annual convention passed a new business item July 4 calling for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to resign.
The surprising move comes on the heels of union anger over moves across the United States to revise due-process protections, tenure, and seniority—some of which have been supported by Democrats, including the Obama administration.
Proposed by the union’s powerful California affiliate, the item cites “the Department’s failed education agenda focused on more high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores” as its rationale for demanding the secretary’s resignation.
Similarly themed items were introduced at the 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010 meetings, but have never before passed. (The union did, in 2011, approve an NBI severely chastising Duncan.)
In addition, the California Teachers Association has had an ax to grind with the secretary since he commented on the Vergara v. California ruling, which found that the state’s tenure law violated student rights.
Duncan seemed to support the decision, though his statement on it was not a hearty endorsement. Instead, he said that the groups should work together to rewrite the laws. After backlash from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, the secretary went out of his way to flesh out his opinion on Vergara in a blog post.
UPDATE: Dean Vogel, the president of the CTA, said in an interview that his members have made clear their opposition to the Department of Education’s support for expanding charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. “Vergara was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said. “The Secretary’s response to the Vergara verdict—it was just shameful. And it underscored his lack of understanding.”
NEA has had a tense relationship with the Obama administration, and it’s unclear how exactly this aggressive move will affect the union.
For years, as Education Week has reported, the NEA has vented its frustration with President Obama by essentially redirecting it towards Duncan. This strategy has allowed the union to criticize the administration without looking foolish, especially during the 2012 re-election season—after all, the union has never once endorsed a Republican presidential candidate, and had no choice but to throw its weight behind Obama.
But it’s also important to note that California is one of the most populous of the state affiliates, and each year submits a large number of the NBIs that are debated. Last year, sources say, the CTA submitted 36 of the 92 total NBIs.
NEA put out its official response to the California item yesterday. President Dennis Van Roekel stated: “NEA members are understandably frustrated with Secretary Duncan and many of the Department of Education’s policies in recent years. We will continue to push the Department of Education to drive student-centered policy changes that are influenced by those who know best—educators working in our classrooms and in our schools—rather than profiteers.”
UPDATE: When asked whether the AFT joined the NEA in calling for Duncan’s resignation, Weingarten said, “I understand the sentiment.” She pointed to the letter she sent to the Secretary immediately after his commentary on the Vergara decision.
Dorie Nolt, press secretary for the Department of Education, wrote in an email, “Secretary Duncan looks forward to continuing to work with NEA and its new leadership.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.