A 4th of July Declaration of Dependence

It’s no small irony that on the 4th of July weekend our nation’s largest union surrendered a chunk of its independence. At their annual meeting in Chicago, the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly voted to support the use of student standardized test results in the evaluation of teachers. That vote alters the union’s previous opposition to such a policy and ties the NEA even closer to the Obama administration’s educational agenda.

The representatives also voted to reject any criticism of President Obama’s war policies, to endorse the president for a second term and to spend up to $60 million for his re-election campaign. As I read about the decisions made by the NEA, a union I have belonged to for more than three decades, it became clear that it has become nothing more than an arm of the increasingly conservative Obama Democratic Party. It stands as just one more example of what Chris Hedges calls the Death of the Liberal Class.

Hedges, a former New York Times correspondent, describes the transformation of a number of liberal institutions —the university, the church, the Democratic Party, the media and labor unions– that at one time stood as a bulwark for the working class against a rapacious capitalism, but have now made their peace with a corporatized society. Thus the NEA, while not announcing it publicly, joins the side of billionaire hedge fund managers, the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose prescription for the country’s public school system includes high stakes testing, merit pay, privatization and the proliferation of charter schools.

The mandatory high stakes testing, central to President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and the current administration’s “Race to the Top,” have been shown time and time again to be most destructive to the education of poor and working class children, the very constituency that labor unions were formed to protect. Writers from Jonathan Kozol to Diane Ravitch have documented the negative effects of such testing, including the pressure on teachers to “teach to the test,” the stress on young students and the dumbing down of the curriculum. Ravitch, at one time an assistant in the George H.W. Bush Department of Education and ardent supporter of high stakes testing, became a fierce critic of the policy when she witnessed its negative consequences. Her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, became an instant classic and led the NEA (I’m not making this up) to present Ravitch its 2010 “Friend of Education” award, its highest honor. On presenting Ravitch with the award, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel remarked that “It is a testament both to her academic integrity as well as to her deep concern for America’s public school students that she changed her position as the facts warranted.” One wonders what “facts” led President Van Roekel this year to lead the NEA to support a policy so counter to the union’s 2010 “Friend of Education” recipient, and to proclaim that “President Barack Obama shares our vision for a stronger America.”

Of course many within NEA’s ranks differ with the decisions made by the Representative Assembly. The NEA doesn’t poll its rank and file, but I suspect that if the union did, a majority of its 3.2 million members would say “No” to high stakes testing and also to America’s wars. Even among the delegates in Chicago, there was significant opposition to endorsing Obama at this point, and the margin supporting him was less than that received by previous Democratic presidential candidates. I suspect that the dissension in the room also led to the adoption of a new business item that instructed the NEA president “to communicate aggressively, forcefully, and immediately” to President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan “that NEA is appalled” with a list of 13 of their practices including the administration’s “inappropriate use of high-stakes standardized test scores for both student achievement and teacher evaluation.” That vote seems somewhat schizophrenic given the Assembly’s major resolution not only supporting standardized tests, but agreeing to their possible use in teacher evaluations. A cynical reading of it might chalk it up to a leadership’s tolerance for dissident positions, with the anticipated knowledge that those positions won’t be taken seriously by Obama, Duncan or the establishment media.

Why did the NEA shift its position on testing, support the administration’s war policies, endorse President Obama with nearly a year and a half before the election, and commit so many millions to his election? One can speculate that the leadership pushed it for fear of a Republican victory in 2012 and to ingratiate themselves with the Democrats. If that is so it only underlines the weakness of American labor. Rather than stand aside independently, criticize the policies of both major parties, and withhold economic and volunteer support, the NEA has chosen to become part of the Democratic establishment. Now the NEA has no cards to hold, no leverage, in pushing for pro-public education policies. In another irony, despite teachers constantly being told that we are to be held “accountable,” the NEA at its 4th of July weekend convention has told the President and Secretary Duncan that they do not have to be held accountable, neither for firing teachers nor bombing Afghanistan. What it also tells us is that, to paraphrase Chris Hedges, liberal institutions will not be the protector of the poor and working class, but progressive change will only come about through rank and file and grass roots-led social movements.

Maynard Seider is a professor emeritus of sociology from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams. He is currently working on a documentary on the future of former factory towns, with a focus on North Adams.

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