Teaching Profession

For Unions, Policy Battles Are Just History Repeating

By Ross Brenneman — July 15, 2014 3 min read
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Every week in our company’s kitchen, our executive editor posts the front page of Education Week from 25 years ago. It helps us appreciate our organization’s work, but it’s also a way to keep perspective.

This past week’s front page offered a short lesson in how education history can be more or less a giant loop.

As you probably know, the American Federation of Teachers just capped off its annual convention yesterday with some new resolutions and the landslide re-election of its president, Randi Weingarten.

The week before that, the National Education Association ended its Representative Assembly with the election of a new president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, who will replace Dennis Van Roekel starting in September.

Twenty-five years ago, however, each of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions were helmed by powerbrokers of immense status. The NEA’s Mary Hatwood Futrell and the AFT’s Albert Shanker towered over their organizations.

Twenty-five years ago, Futrell was bringing her term to an end when she was viewed, according to Education Week, as “the most popular effective leader in the organization’s history.” During her tenure, Futrell oversaw significant work by the union to improve its image, including its efforts to raise standards for entering the profession and being one of the champions of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

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In April 1983, a national commission published A Nation at Risk, a searing critique of the country’s education system. Futrell became president months later in September 1983, stepping into the midst of a battle over the future of public education:

Unions, in general, were on the defensive, notes Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States. And the new furor surrounding the public schools had the potential to ‘pit the unions against the reform movement.’

‘At the time that Mary became president,’ adds Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, ‘the feeling of teachers around the country was that they were under siege.’

Van Roekel, himself a fierce proponent of high standards for entering the teaching profession, raised the spectre of Nation at Risk in his final keynote address to the union, on July 3. As my colleague Liana Heitin writes:

Van Roekel, who will step down as president on Sept. 1, went on to rail against the more recent ‘intrusion of for-profit players’ and ‘the onslaught of corporate reformers like Democrats For Education Reform, Michelle Rhee, and the like.’ He didn’t expand on their particular groups’ work except to denounce their ‘attempts to silence our voice.’

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Despite an occasionally acrimonious relationship between the two unions, Shanker praised Futrell as “the most effective public spokesperson and the most well-known that the NEA has ever had, certainly within my memory.”

Shanker, though, once described by a member of the conservative Hudson Institute as “as tough and savvy and capable a union leader as we’ve ever seen in this country” had much less kind things to say about the U.S. Secretary of Education in 1989, Lauro F. Cavazos, and the man who came before him.

‘We need somebody at the helm who has a theory about what’s wrong and acts on it,’ [Shanker said]. Mr. Cavazos’ predecessor, William J. Bennett, ‘had a theory and acted on it, but he had the wrong theory,’ Mr. Shanker said. ‘Now we have someone who has no theory and isn’t acting.’

Flash forward to this past Sunday, July 13:

The American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution Sunday calling on President Barack Obama to put U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on an ‘improvement plan,’ and demand his resignation if he doesn’t change positions the union deems harmful.

Even as some of the views of union leaders have changed over the years, many of the fights haven’t. Sometimes they are just a little bit of history repeating.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.