The National Education Association, the nation's largest professional employee organization, is fundamentally opposed to any education reform that seeks to hold public schools accountable for their failures. On July 3, it will hold its national convention in Washington, D.C. That's when the association is expected to endorse John Kerry for president. Along with the endorsement will come thousands of votes from teachers across the country.
In return, Kerry will talk about how school vouchers will tear apart our public education system.
Far more instructive, however, are the remarks Kerry made about education before he won the Democratic nomination and became beholden to the big interests of the teacher unions.
"We must end teacher tenure as we now know it," said Kerry in 1998 speeches delivered in Boston and Washington. During those speeches, Kerry took shots at a public education bureaucracy that shielded public schools and teachers from accountability and bemoaned that "those going into teaching have the lowest SAT and ACT scores of any profession in the United States."
In a 1998 New Republic article, Dana Milbank wrote that Kerry told her he'd "even approve government-funded vouchers - good for tuition at any accredited private school - as part of an overall education reform. ..." At the time, Kerry was proposing turning all public schools into charter schools. The reasoning was that, since students are assigned to public schools, the system has no incentive to improve and no accountability for failure. Stated otherwise, the public school system is a monopoly. But if poor families could send their children to any charter school, with the government paying all or part of the tuition, public schools would be forced to raise their standards or risk having their students flee.
"I'm for tough love here, folks," Kerry said. "It's time to come in and kick some butts. Democrats can't be viewed as somehow protecting these practices. You can't do this in some loosey-goosey ... way."
Six years later, Kerry is toting a different tune. No longer is he issuing severe-sounding rhetoric about making public education accountable. In fact, his new education plan goes so far as to demand that "any new education program Congress authorizes will be automatically funded by law." In other words, Kerry is calling for an open spigot of education spending. Once the spending is authorized, neither Congress nor a future president can turn the spigot off. Just throw money at the problem. Reward failure not with accountability but with more funds. Certainly sounds like Kerry's buying into the big interests of the education unions now.
So why the flip-flop? It's pretty straightforward. Kerry could afford to be a little bolder and more flexible while working on the local and state level. Now that Kerry is the Democratic nominee for president, he has to march in step with the party.
The National Education Association owns a piece of the Democratic Party. According to its budget, it donated $20 million last year to Democratic legislators, second only to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Receiving a large part of its campaign money directly from the teacher's union means the Democrats are obliged to repay the debt in some form. That's why the same Democratic representatives who send their own children to private schools are up in arms each Congressional session crying about how extending that same right to poor children, mostly of color, would destroy the public education system.
The union's motivation for opposing vouchers and public school accountability is equally straightforward. It realizes vouchers would mean fewer teachers, fewer membership dues, likely defections by public school personnel to privatized systems that have traditionally resisted centralized unionization, and the birth of competing collective bargaining entities.
For the teacher unions, the idea of competition can only mean giving up leverage. Since the job of unions is to accumulate leverage and membership dues, the teacher unions have decided it is in their best interest to vehemently oppose the vouchers movement.
Together, Kerry and the unions talk about protecting the interests of our children. It would be nice, however, if these so-called representatives of our children's interests could find a way not to sell out the greatest instrument of our children's empowerment - their education.