Yesterday, the rank and file of the National Education Association passed a resolution demanding that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan resign, not that you’d know that from any of the major news organizations: as I write this, it’s now been about 15 hours since the vote, with nary a peep from CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, the New York Times, the Washington Post, even the Chronicle of Higher Education… well, you get the idea. Hell, it didn’t even make it the NEA’s own website, although the election of new officers is right there at the top of the main page.
One would have thought that such a declaration of no confidence in the nation’s foremost education administrator from the country’s largest educational organization (3,000,000+ members) might cause at least a ripple in the national media. Nope.
There are, no doubt, a number of reasons why. For one thing, the vote came late in the afternoon, on a holiday, at the beginning of a weekend. That’s pretty much the gold standard if you want a take-out-the-trash announcement. So was it intentional, or inept? It’s hard to say. It was certainly the latter if NEA wants its resolutions to be relevant to a larger discussion of education issues. But it’s tempting to think that the leadership, which has always been a lot cozier with the reformist movement (Common Core, charter schools, etc.) than the membership has been, anticipated the possibility that they just might not be able to deflect the anger of the rank and file again, just because similar “business items” in previous years failed. So having the vote when the rest of the country was firing up the grill and waiting for the fireworks to start may have been a strategic move. I doubt it, but only because I don’t think the NEA leadership is that smart.
After all, Secretary Duncan has proved himself repeatedly to be the worst kind of arrogant, duplicitous, corporatist hack. Everyone in the education business knew that last year and the year before that and the year before that, but now we also have his remarkably tone-deaf initial response to the Vergara case in California, which essentially eliminated tenure in the public school system in that state:
For students in California and every other state, equal opportunities for learning must include the equal opportunity to be taught by a great teacher. The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students. Today’s court decision is a mandate to fix these problems. Together, we must work to increase public confidence in public education. This decision presents an opportunity for a progressive state with a tradition of innovation to build a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve. My hope is that today’s decision moves from the courtroom toward a collaborative process in California that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift. Every state, every school district needs to have that kind of conversation. At the federal level, we are committed to encouraging and supporting that dialogue in partnership with states. At the same time, we all need to continue to address other inequities in education–including school funding, access to quality early childhood programs and school discipline.
He backpedaled a few days later, but a lot of teachers—rightly, I think—read the first statement as an indictment not only of tenure but of teachers’ unions and indeed of teachers in general. The Vergara decision was, of course, an abomination, although some of the underlying issues do need to be addressed. Duncan’s second run at saying something intelligent about the case wasn’t too bad—supporting tenure but arguing that it shouldn’t be granted after only 18 months on the job, for example—but, especially given his support of what detractors have called the GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement) movement, it was too little, too late.
So, in Curmie’s ever-so-humble opinion, Arne Duncan richly deserves to be out of a job. But that’s not really the question here. The question is why nobody cares that the NEA thinks so, too. For one thing, the resolution carries no teeth. The NEA hasn’t demanded Duncan’s job, before, but they’ve certainly passed sweeping condemnations of his job performance: Here’s a link to Valerie Strauss’s coverage of a 2011 resolution, for example. And he’s more influential in the Obama administration now than he was before those scathing critiques. The principal reason for this is encapsulated by Mike Antonucci on the Hot Air site:
This particular item was introduced in a rather odd speech from California Teachers Association president Dean Vogel, who went on about leaders needing to take responsibility for what happens under their charge. Vogel asked rhetorically “Where does the buck stop?” and concluded “The guy at the top has got to go.” Apparently the buck stopped far from the guy at the top if Arne Duncan is the cause of all this angst.
That’s it, in a nutshell. The problem isn’t Duncan (well, it isn’t just Duncan); it’s the guy who chose him, the guy who really sets policy, the guy who either didn’t demand or didn’t accept Duncan’s resignation at the end of his first term (as he did for, say, Hillary Clinton), the guy whose former mouthpieces Robert Gibbs and Ben LaBolt are now scurrying across the countryside stoking anti-tenure lawsuits.
|The real problem isn’t the guy on the left; it’s the guy on the right.|
The problem, in other words, is Barack Obama, who won the NEA’s endorsement in both 2008 and 2012. The NEA has never endorsed a Republican for President (they have in gubernatorial races), and Mitt Romney sure as hell wasn’t the one to break the precedent for, but they’re under no statutory obligation to endorse anyone, of course. It is more than a little telling that the Education Week piece linked at the top of this piece says that the union “had no choice but to throw its weight behind Obama” in 2012. This is, of course, unmitigated bovine feces. Yet, as I wrote about two years ago, the 2012 NEA convention had all the trappings of an Obama re-election rally, with t-shirts inscribed with Obama’s name, videos, and delegates’ being encouraged to hold “house parties” to “educate their friends about why Obama… deserves a second term.” There were even encomia to the ACA, which seems sort of out of the organization’s purview.
The NEA, in other words, can’t seem to wrap its collective head around the idea that 1). all the proclamations in the world aren’t going to get President Obama to fire Secretary Duncan or to get him to resign (as Peter Greene at Curmudgucation points out in an essay well worth reading in its entirety, it’s “[interesting] that the resolution calls for Duncan to resign rather than the President to fire him”) and 2). replacing Duncan wouldn’t mean a new direction for the Department of Education, just a new second-in-command to the same President who thought Duncan was an even vaguely appealing choice to begin with.
It may be, as Greene also notes, that there will be a message sent:
... that teachers have had it with this amateur-hour bullshit trash-and-dismantle approach to our profession and the public education that we've devoted our lives to. Let's continue to make it clear to the folks in DC that we have had it with their assault on American public education. Let's continue to make it clear to the Democratic party it's not true that they don't have to stand up for us because we'll vote for them no matter how many times they attack us. And let's continue to make it clear to NEA leadership that we expect them to represent the teachers of America, and not politicians who keep attacking them.
But that, as Greene is well aware, is both wishful thinking and long-term, at least as far as having substantive impact on national decision-making is concerned. In the here and now, the NEA has less power to influence educational policy than it has at any point in my lifetime, and an utterly ineffectual (and close) vote, clearly not sanctioned by a diffident and equivocal leadership, to remove the Secretary of Education isn’t going to strengthen their political suasion, especially since Obama, like most politicians, is not above petulant retaliation.
All these reasons, then, help to account for the deafening silence about the NEA’s resolution that we hear from the corporate media. That, and the fact that they’re lazy bastards who can’t be bothered to actually cover the news.