AFT, NEA Agendas Converge Amid External, Internal Pressure

By Stephen Sawchuk & Liana Loewus — July 25, 2014 7 min read
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What may end up being a new era for the teachers’ unions began, fittingly, with a marriage.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was a guest of honor at incoming National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García’s wedding, held concurrently with the NEA’s Representative Assembly in Denver this month. A few weeks later, Ms. García gave a rousing speech to AFT delegates on the final day of that union’s convention, in Los Angeles.

“The AFT and the NEA will try to forge a new relationship,” Ms. Weingarten said while introducing her counterpart. “Part of that is because our members, our communities, our families demand it. We’re not going to be able to fight back ... unless we work shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand.”

While the actual degree of collaboration between the two unions remains to be seen, the conventions illustrated a remarkable policy convergence, portending what could indeed be a more unified response to national and state education issues.

At their meetings, both the NEA and the AFT passed resolutions targeting U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Both attacked the prominence of standardized-test scores in judging both students and teachers. And in recent months, both unions have qualified their support for the Common Core State Standards, especially as it pertains to implementation.

The convergence, observers say, is the product not only of the unions’ need to assume a defensive posture in the face of legislative and legal attacks, but also of the pressure brought by internal factions that have urged the unions to take a tougher stance against market-based education policies.

New Elections

To be sure, the differences between the unions remain stark and many, particularly in their internal structures. A national merger remains unlikely: NEA delegates firmly nixed that idea just last year, more than 15 years after voting down a formal merger proposal.

But when it comes to topics like testing, their rhetoric now largely matches.

“NEA and AFT are on this parallel course right now. They’re moving in the same direction, and the direction is about kids, the education of students, creating the right environment to educate students, and using the proper assessments when it’s appropriate,” said Karen Magee, the president of New York State United Teachers, an affiliate of both unions. She attended both conventions.

For Ms. García, who formally takes the helm of the NEA on Sept. 1, it is a natural evolution. Long an opponent of test-based accountability, she made assessment a major theme in her address to NEA delegates, and the union’s first major item of business was to oppose a culture of “toxic testing.” The emphasis marked a contrast with that of Dennis Van Roekel, the outgoing NEA president, who has historically underscored teacher professionalism and school improvement.

For the AFT, the shift has been more stark. Ms. Weingarten initially had seemed more receptive to the kinds of policy ideas espoused in federal programs such as Race to the Top. Just four years ago, for instance, she said that tests could be one of several measures for evaluating teachers, and garnered headlines for helping affiliates in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and New Haven, Conn., ink contracts experimenting with new systems of teacher evaluation and pay.

Now, Ms. Weingarten calls “value added” measures of teacher quality based on test scores “a sham.” And her union passed a resolution at its convention calling for an end to the No Child Left Behind Act’s insistence on the annual testing of every child in grades 3-8 in reading and math.

Push and Pull

Several factors have helped push the teachers’ unions closer together.

There are the vagaries of politics, including four years of attacks by state Republican lawmakers seeking to curb bargaining rights and dues collection; unfavorable court decisions, such as the recent ruling in Vergara v. California that curbed teacher job protections; and—crucially—the continuing splintering of the unions’ support among their traditional Democratic allies.

“I don’t know that the unions will become indistinguishable, but it is possible that they are recognizing that what they have to fight is not each other,” said Julia E. Koppich, a teachers’ union expert based in San Francisco. “It is the same set of forces, and those forces are arrayed against the NEA and the AFT.”

Also, the unions face, as Ms. Magee of NYSUT points out, more pressure from coalitions of parents, teachers, and school boards to address testing and the implementation of the common-core standards.

And there is internal pressure from a handful of union leaders who have embraced a tougher stand on some policy issues.

‘A Seminal Moment’

The most prominent example is the Chicago Teachers Union, the AFT’s third-largest affiliate, whose president, Karen Lewis, led a seven-day strike in 2012 over disagreements on seniority, school closings, and teacher evaluation. It would prove to be a watershed moment, giving rise to similarly minded groups within both the AFT and the NEA.

“The Chicago Teachers Union strike was a seminal moment and really galvanized people nationally and showed people how to fight, and that has really shaped both rank-and-file and national and local leadership,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, the newly elected president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a merged AFT-NEA affiliate.

Generally, such groups claim a “social justice” orientation based on community engagement, improved access for students to physical- and mental-health resources, a balanced curriculum, and smaller class sizes. When it comes to work policies, though, they have hewn strongly to traditional rules on teacher seniority, due process, and tenure—issues that Ms. Weingarten once said could be on the reform table.

“It’s become clear at the national level under Arne Duncan, and at the local level with charter schools and superintendents out of the Broad Academy, that making what used to be little concessions around things like seniority doesn’t stop those folks from going for the jugular,” said Mr. Caputo-Pearl. “It’s not a tactic that stops the onslaught on public education.”

That’s also the perspective of the new president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Barbara Madeloni. She ran for the top office in that NEA affiliate on a platform portraying its outgoing president, Paul Toner, as too prone to compromise with state lawmakers.

“I offered a vision for educators that said we don’t have to continue to go along to get along, go along with the policies and mandates that are overwhelming us and making it harder to do the work we care about,” Ms. Madeloni said.

A few weeks later, Mr. Toner, who was term-limited out of office, failed to win election to the NEA’s board of directors—a surprise, sources say, even to some of the NEA’s top officials.

Questions Linger

The aggressive undercurrent isn’t limited to internal union politics. At the NEA convention, many delegates identified themselves at the microphones as members of the Badass Teacher Association, or “BATs,” a group with some 50,000 members on Facebook. The organization, once considered a fringe group, opposes test-based policies, school closings, and the proliferation of charters, and has executed several highly visible policy campaigns on Twitter.

The national union’s leaders are paying attention. Within the NEA, those teachers now have a caucus, or internal membership group recognized by the union. And twice in her keynote address to AFT delegates, Ms. Weingarten also referenced the group.

On some issues, nevertheless, the two unions continue to plot a course at odds with some of their internal critics. So far, for instance, neither the NEA nor the AFT has turned its back on the Common Core State Standards. A common-core resolution written by the AFT’s executive council, and eventually approved by delegates, called for more teacher input in implementation of the standards. It staved off an alternative proposal from the Chicago Teachers Union calling on the parent union to oppose the standards outright.

The NEA similarly passed an item pledging implementation support to affiliates.

And Ms. García of the NEA confirmed her personal commitment to the common-core standards in an interview. “I read those standards, and I love them,” she said.

But both unions have also recently argued that certain portions of the standards might need to be rewritten or “improved.” The AFT announced a plan at its convention to give out grants to affiliates for such purposes.

In the midst of acrimonious debates, Ms. Koppich believes the unions will continue to face pressure from state lawmakers to produce solutions to problems like uneven teacher quality, and not merely to criticize current trends.

It’s advice that even some of the new union activists can take to heart.

“Like our own communities, when people are [in] constant battle mode, it’s a lot easier to defend yourself than to come up with a positive agenda,” said one activist who requested anonymity because of his relationship with several of the new union groups.

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 2014 edition of Education Week as AFT, NEA Agendas Converge as External, Internal Pressures Rise


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