Education Reform From the Union Point of View

With Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton on tour together to promote school reform, a bipartisan nirvana must be on the horizon. It's hard to imagine two more ideological opposites, but they agree on a couple of big things. One is that America's schools are badly in need of innovation, and the other is that teachers' unions are part of the problem. That was enough common ground for President Obama to convince them to take their show on the road. Beginning in September, the unlikely duo has exchanged friendly jabs in front of schoolkids and administrators in several cities, all in the name of shaking up the system.

A conservative Republican attacking unions isn't news, but when a Democrat as liberal as Sharpton takes up the cudgel, that got National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel's attention. "He zapped unions, said we were the problem," Van Roekel recalls. Van Roekel called Sharpton about it, but didn't expect to have much impact. Fairly or unfairly, teachers' unions are seen as protecting bad teachers and holding on to tenure, goals that hamper student achievement.

With a Democrat in the White House and an education secretary who's bent on aggressive reform, I figured it was a good time to check in with Van Roekel and see how he's faring. We chatted in his office at the NEA headquarters on 16th Street in downtown Washington, D.C. He's new to the hot seat, having only been in the job a little over a year. He was a high-school math teacher in Phoenix for 23 years, and his office is decorated with touches of Native American and Southwestern art. He recalled being state president in the 1980s when President Reagan's "Nation at Risk" report came out, sparking reform efforts and plenty of great conferences. But nothing ever caught on, says Van Roekel. "We were building campfires of excellence; they didn't spread. What we need is a brush fire."

The statistics are grim, and unchanging. Every year for the last 25 years, a quarter of the high-school population has dropped out. That means 1.2 million kids drop out each year, and in 10 years there will be an additional 12 million adults who don't have a high-school diploma. "What's their shot in the 21st century?" Van Roekel asks. "What will they do?" Forty years ago, middle-class jobs were available, and high-school dropouts could make a good living. No more. "That's what drives the NEA, and me," he says. "If we could put all the second graders in one big stadium, I can tell you with some precision how many will be drug addicts, how many will be incarcerated, how many will become teen parents, how many will commit suicide. We know these statistics. What we have to do right now is change the system so these statistics don't apply."

How to change the system and still protect teachers is what can put the NEA and the other major teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, at odds with the Obama administration. Van Roekel did point out that there is a lot of money on the table behind the administration's reform efforts, and that has had a mitigating effect on some of the more outspoken opposition. AFT President Randi Weingarten initially derided Obama's reform efforts as "Bush III" because they continue the Bush administration's emphasis on charter schools and measuring success through test scores. But she has since sounded much more positive, realizing perhaps that the resources dedicated to reform and controlled by Education Secretary Arne Duncan indicate a seriousness of purpose that is best to join forces with and harness than to oppose.

Everybody involved is for reform, but on their terms. Van Roekel favors what he calls an MOU, a memorandum of understanding, an agreement that would be struck between the Board of Education, the union, and school administrators to get all the key stakeholders behind a reform plan. He is most enthusiastic about Syracuse, N.Y., where the Say Yes to Education foundation, in partnership with Syracuse University, has taken on the entire city system of 21,000 students, providing social services and tutoring to raise graduation rates and pledging full tuition at some 25 participating colleges for every student who is accepted.

Our conversation was cut short when Van Roekel had to rush off to the White House for a meeting on health care. As he headed for the door, I challenged him about the NEA's primary role as the protector of teachers. He bristled: "In my home state of Arizona, people need a license to cut hair," while teacher requirements were so lax that Education Week gave the state a D minus in improving the quality of its teachers, prompting a toughening of standards in 2005 that was supported by the teachers' union. The moral of the story is that the Arizona teachers' union, prodded by negative publicity, ended up on the side of reform, a formula that Gingrich and Sharpton know well.

Eleanor Clift is also the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.