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Will Education Divide the Democratic Party?

Will differences between education reformers and teachers' unions cost Obama in 2012?


Whereas cable news has been running with the narrative that the Tea Party will eventually split the Republican Party, U.S. News & World Report opinion columnist Alvin Felzenberg believes the real threat of fissure concerns the Democrats. The issue that will tear its already loose coalition together: education (specifically disagreement between teachers' unions and educated elites).

Elite, well-educated reformers ... regard public schools as incubators of quality workforces the information-based economy of the 21st century will need to maintain the lead the United States currently enjoys in research and development, patents, and entrepreneurship. These groups, as they do in their places of businesses, put a premium on quality performance and accountability. The teachers unions regard public schools as warehouses to which students are assigned on the basis of where they happen to live. Consistent with the trade union culture, their primary concern remains job protection of their members. These are two full-powered locomotives heading toward each other on a common track. If he is not careful, President Obama may be the victim of the coming collision.


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Unions have, of course, long been a prominent part of the Democratic base, and the current wave of reformers sweeping through the education system—which include Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan—seem to threaten that once relied upon loyalty.

I'd argue that the fissure may be coming from within the union's ranks itself. A recent New York Times piece notes that Randi Weingarten (pictured above, on right), the head of the American Federation of Teachers and easily the most visible teachers' union representative around, is pushing the unions to show some flexibility, in the wake of a shifting reform landscape. It's earned her a coup from Baltimore teachers, who put the kibosh on a teacher contract she supported, and it's gotten her heckled in Detroit. Meanwhile, during NBC's Education Nation Teacher Town Hall, younger teachers spoke up saying they didn't need the union and didn't understand its function, while older teachers looked on in horror.

It's a tenuous situation, and Felzenberg is likely right about education being the fault line for some cracking in the Democratic party. What he misses is that support for the sort of reforms that the Obama administration and reformers like Michelle Rhee is championed by the Republican Party, as well. (The Republican governor of New Jersey just offered Rhee a job, in fact.) And Tea Party candidates, like Rand Paul, want the Department of Education to be dissolved.

So, there's not really anywhere for the unions to go—unless one envisions a Tea Party on the right and a Teachers Party on the left. In the case of Democrat-dominated Washington, D.C., that proved to be a huge problem. But can it hreaten Obama?

Photo (cc) via Flickr user aflcio.

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