School Choice & Charters Opinion

The 2014 Elections, Public Education, and Teachers’ Unions

By Leo Casey — November 13, 2014 5 min read
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Leo Casey replies again today to Deborah Meier.

Dear Deb:

For the last week, I have been thinking about how the 2014 elections will impact the subjects we have been discussing here these last eight weeks. “Elections have consequences,” the popular truism goes. Very few of these consequences this year will be good for public schools and the students they teach, or positive for teachers and their unions.

The elections that were openly fought over issues of public education and teachers—the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election, the Missouri ballot referendum on teacher tenure, and the California state superintendent of education election—ended in victories for advocates of public education and teachers’ unions. But those elections were among the few bright spots in a rather dismal set of results.

Elsewhere Democratic supporters of public education, teachers, and unions were swept away by an election night Republican tsunami. Fueled by anger at President Obama and an anemic economic “recovery” that has left behind working people and the middle class as the wealthiest prosper, this wave took down advocates of public schools such as U.S. Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina. Anti-union and anti-public education governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Snyder of Michigan were re-elected. Even in deep-blue states such as Maryland, Massachusetts, and Illinois, uninspired Democratic gubernatorial candidates without a compelling message went down to defeat.

Republicans won the U.S. Senate. Over 60 percent of all governors are now Republican. In 23 states Republicans control both the governorship and the state legislature; Democrats exercise a similar control in only seven states, with the remainder having mixed control. Overall, Republicans control 68 of 98 state legislative houses. Importantly, Tea Party and ultra-conservative Republicans are heavily represented among those numbers, and grew in strength in these elections.

It matters little, I am afraid, that the voter turnout was low, at one-third of those eligible to vote, or that public education and teachers’ unions were not decisive issues in most of these elections. Nor does it matter that voters overwhelmingly passed referenda raising the minimum wage in four deep-red states, demonstrating that their votes were not a mandate for a conservative economic policy agenda. We will still see governors and state legislatures take up the Tea Party and ultra-conservative playbook. They will look to cut funds for public education and other public services, and to divert existing budgets into new voucher plans. They will try to strip teachers and other public employees of collective bargaining rights. Attacks will be made on teacher and public employee pensions. Due process rights for teachers will be assailed. Attempts will be made to deregulate and expand charter schools. “Right to work” and “paycheck protection” legislation, Orwellian named laws designed to eviscerate unions, will be pursued. The next two years will be very difficult ones for public education and unions.

Ironically, it is a Tea Party and conservative sense of political vulnerability that has led them to this extreme agenda. The demographic writing on the wall, so vividly captured in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, tells the conservative right that their political base among older white men has become a minority of the American electorate, and that it is a segment that continues to shrink. Younger voters, women voters, and growing numbers of voters of color and immigrant voters all trend Democratic and progressive. While lower turnouts in non-presidential elections provide short term respite to the hard political right, the long-term trends work against them.

It is easy to lose sight of this larger picture in the face of the Republican wave of 2014, but we do so at the peril of understanding what motivates those on the right. Tea Party political rhetoric can be most fruitfully understood as a reflection of their refusal to accept this new demographic reality. The calls for “taking back our country,” the denial of the legitimacy of a twice-elected African-American president (remember the great controversy over Barack Obama’s birth certificate), the revival of old segregationist language of “state rights,” and the fulminations over immigration, to cite just the more common examples, all express a sensibility of deep alienation on the hard right, such that they are simply not “at home” in a diverse, 21st-century America. Their world has changed underneath them, and they are unwilling to reconcile with the new America.

The common response of political parties that have dwindled to minority support is to rethink and readjust their policy agenda in efforts to appeal to a broader swath of the population. But for the Tea Party and the hard conservative right, this option is unthinkable, as it would mean the abandonment of their America. Instead, they have concluded that the only way they can be electorally competitive is through voter suppression and union suppression. As a consequence, they will make it difficult for core Democratic constituencies to vote and strike at what is left of the American labor movement, the only organized progressive force that can provide a countervailing force to the flood of corporate money that is swamping American politics in the wake of Citizens United.

The 2014 elections were also revealing in the actions of those who call themselves Democratic “education reformers,” and flaws in the responses of some of those who are public education advocates and defenders of unions, Deb. I would like to discuss those developments with you next week.


Leo Casey is the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a policy and research think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. For 27 years, he worked in the New York City public high schools, where he taught high school social studies. For six years, he served as the vice president for academic high schools for New York City’s teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers.

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