By Victor Skinner

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For decades, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have resisted long-overdue changes to teacher tenure and other rigid union rules that favor employees over students.

The union solution has always been to pour more tax money into the current system, rather than making the system more efficient and student-focused.

Unfortunately the Democratic Party has largely toed the union line for decades. And judging by the 2012 Democratic Party Education Platform recently adopted at the national convention in Charlotte, not much has really changed.

While the Atlantic and other left-leaning publications claim that “education reformers are now influential at the highest levels of the party once dominated by the unions,” the Democratic platform, for the most part, still reads like a collection of frayed union talking points.

In typical union fashion, the party platform outlines a series of vague promises with no real specifics.

“If we want high-quality education for all our kids, we must listen to the people who are on the front lines. The President has laid out a plan to prevent more teacher layoffs while attracting and rewarding great teachers,” according to the party’s platform.

“This includes raising standards for programs that prepare our teachers, recognizing and rewarding good teaching, and retaining good teachers.”

Union-loyal Democrats were also sure to include a feigned desire to revamp teacher evaluations, but included caveats in the language that afford teachers unions plenty of wiggle room.

“We also believe in carefully crafted evaluation systems that give struggling teachers a chance to succeed and protect due process if another teacher has to be put in the classroom. We also recognize there is no substitute for a parent’s involvement in their child’s education,” the Democratic platform reads.

Whatever that means.

What about removing poorly performing teachers, or paying teachers based on their effectiveness, rather than the number of years they’ve been in a classroom?

There’s no mention of that.

Dems, unions should practice what they preach

The Democratic education platform makes a lot of noise about excellence in the classroom.

“We are committed to ensuring that every child in America has access to a world-class public education so we can out-educate the world and make sure America has the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by 2020,” the Democratic platform states.

“This requires excellence at every level of our education system, from early learning through post-secondary education. It means we must close the achievement gap in America’s schools and ensure that in every neighborhood in the country, children can benefit from high-quality educational opportunities.”

We certainly agree with the sentiment, but the union leaders who dominate the party haven’t exactly practiced what they preach.

In Chicago, crucial instruction for thousands of public school students – many of them poor minority students stuck in the city’s worst schools – was denied when teachers went on strike this month.

In New York and California, teachers unions have fought at the state level to keep sexually abusive teachers on the city’s payroll far longer than necessary, and on the local level to avoid creating a new evaluation system that will help weed out the worst performing educators.

Unions in school districts across the country are fighting efforts to remake failing schools, even those in inner-city neighborhoods where racial achievement gaps are most pronounced. More often, union officials and supportive Democratic lawmakers water down turnaround efforts to the point that the same principals and teachers responsible for past failures are the ones leading the “change.”

On the positive side, President Obama instituted a “Race to the Top” initiative that provided financial incentives for states to implement important education reforms, but the effort was reliant on the approval of union officials who often refused to sign off on the changes.

Benefits from the RTTT program were also negated by federal stimulus money pushed through Congress that allowed schools to avoid the difficult financial decisions necessary for long-term stability. President Obama simply provided funds to keep teachers employed, even in districts with dramatically falling enrollment, postponing inevitable budget cuts tied to the economy and reduced revenues.

Obama’s bailouts, however, kept dues dollars flowing to the teachers unions. The NEA and the AFT are now repaying Obama by supporting his campaign for re-election.

Some things never change.

What about real school choice?

There is one area where Democratic education reformers seem to have made some headway – school choice.

While the party’s platform falls short of fully embracing school choice, it does reference the theory of using different education options to reach at-risk students.

“The Democratic Party understands the importance of turning around struggling public schools,” the platform says. “We will continue to strengthen all our schools and work to expand public school options for low-income youth, including magnet schools, charter schools, teacher-led schools and career academies.”

While it’s encouraging to see Democrats acknowledge the potential of school choice, union support for that concept is often limited to unionized institutions, or schools run by the government.

We believe that Democrats are overlooking a very promising path offered by private school vouchers. A growing number of voucher programs in various states are allowing even the poorest students to attend some of the finest private and parochial schools.

But teachers unions have bitterly opposed voucher programs wherever they’ve popped up, including Indiana, Wisconsin and Louisiana. Most Democratic Party leaders unfortunately echo that sentiment.

It’s clear that they only oppose voucher programs because they allow private schools to compete for public money. The unions want to make sure that money is used to employ their members. That’s yet another sad example of putting the financial interests of adults before the best interests of students.

Dem reformers push forward

Despite the relatively status-quo positions adopted in the Democratic platform, there are signs that reformers are gaining influence within the party.

Los Angeles mayor Antonia Villaraigosa, the chairman of the Democratic convention, spoke at a screening of the movie Won’t Back Down hosted by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee during the convention the Atlantic reports.

“Another Democratic star, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, spoke at a cocktails-and-canapes reception (after the screening),” according to the news magazine. “Across the country, Democratic officials from governors like Colorado’s John Hickenlooper to former President Clinton … are shifting the party’s consensus away from union-dictated terms to which it has long been loyal.

“Instead, they’re moving the party toward a full-fledged embrace of the twin pillars of the reform movement: performance-based incentives for teachers, and increased options, including charter schools, for parents.”

“These are some of the most high-profile Democrats out there,” Rhee told the Atlantic, referencing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

“They are taking on unions. They are fighting for what they believe in. It definitely signals a new day.”

That may be true. But it’s difficult to tell from reading the party’s education platform, and it certainly isn’t the same perspective taken by Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, who helped write the platform language.

“Does public education need to change? Yes,” Weingarten told the Atlantic. “Do we not change fast enough? Yes. But Democrats are united about the aspiration of ensuring that every single child gets a decent education and that the investment is there to do that.”

Unfortunately Weingarten, and others who set the Democratic policy, are still focused on more “investment” in public schools as the road to “reform.”

At least some Democratic reformers like Rhee and California’s Ben Austin see things differently. Austin heads a group called Parent Revolution that pushes for “parent trigger” laws that allow parents to force change in failing schools through a petition process.

“I had a simple world view: teachers are good, unions are good, therefore teachers unions are good,” Austin told the Atlantic. “But progressives are waking up to the fact that the status quo is not a progressive position.”

“A growing group of voters are ideological liberals but don’t believe their money is going to serve children in public education. They think it gets stuck in a bureaucratic black hole and gets wasted,” he said.

Our research suggests that they’re right. And we suspect the waste and dismal results in public education will persist until the Democratic Party adopts more of the reform policies advocated by the real progressive thinkers within its ranks.

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