Is education no longer a battleground in the culture war? When the Democrats take on the teachers unions.

The old narrative of education and politics seems to be breaking down. It used to be that education was a Democratic issue. Democratic President Jimmy Carter established the federal Department of Education and teachers unions were a powerful and crucial engine for Democratic votes. The Republicans were the ones who supported vouchers and opposed any federal funding for public education.

Now that narrative is breaking down. Republican President George W. Bush pushed for and signed the No Child Left Behind Act and significantly increased the federal role in education. His brother Jeb Bush is considered one of the leading political authorities on education reform, and the state of Florida, which he governed, is an example being studied and emulated by numerous other states. Democratic President Barack Obama is a prominent supporter of charter schools. And while Republican governors like Scott Walker attracted attention by taking on the unions in the state of Wisconsin, numerous Democratic mayors have taken similar if less radical steps in their own cities.

The latest such mayor is Obama’s former chief-of-staff and the current mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel. As the Washington Post reports:

Teachers in Chicago went on strike for the first time in 25 years on Monday in a bitter dispute with Mayor Rahm Emanuel that is reverberating across the country as the issues at the core of the conflict — teacher evaluations tied to student test scores, a longer school day and other education policy changes — are being hotly debated from Hawaii to Maine….

It is also the boldest confrontation yet involving one of a growing number of Democratic mayors who have been pressuring unions to accept policy changes in cities such as Boston, Cleveland and Los Angeles, creating a schism between the Democrats and a traditional ally.

“It’s not just about the negotiations in Chicago,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. “Because of the visibility of the mayor, this is an important stand for the union. They’re trying to send a message nationally about what teacher unions are going to tolerate from Democratic mayors.”

The New York Times likewise points out that unions are on the defensive across the country, and that the onslaught is coming from both Republicans and Democrats.

Eager to improve Chicago’s schools, Mr. Emanuel has taken several steps — among them pressing the school board to rescind a promised 4 percent raise — and made numerous demands that have infuriated the Chicago Teachers Union. He wants student test performance to count heavily in evaluating teachers for tenure, even though the union insists that is a highly unreliable way to assess teachers. And with Mr. Emanuel intent on shuttering dozens of poorly performing schools, the union is pressing him to agree to strong provisions to reinstate teachers in other schools when theirs are closed….

“The teachers’ unions are on the defensive on many more fronts than they used to be,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a longtime education analyst who heads the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education policy group in Washington. “It used to be they could just fight vouchers and charter schools. But now they face this huge set of issues,” not to mention budgetary pressures that have caused large-scale layoffs….

He said the Chicago walkout would sully the image of teachers’ unions. “It’s probably about the dumbest thing they could do from a national standpoint,” he said. “It will remind everybody that teachers’ unions are about teachers, not kids.”

What is the significance of all of this, apart from the details? Whatever one might think about public education and about the proper path to reform, it has to be a good thing when the push for reform, and the willingness to challenge entrenched interests like the teachers unions, is coming from both parties. Contrary to the assumption of some culture warriors, real progress usually comes when coalitions are built across party lines and when reforms represent widespread consensus.

Of course, achieving such breadth of support and consensus often comes at the cost of not achieving every little thing we might think ideal. But it brings with it the reward of actually getting something done. And when the future of the country is at stake – the education of our children – getting something done is pretty important.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on September 11, 2012, in Culture War, Democratic Party, Education, Republican Party and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Is education no longer a battleground in the culture war? When the Democrats take on the teachers unions..

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