Sept. 30, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Who Will Congress Put First — Children or Teachers Unions?

If any story this year deserved Page One coverage — but didn’t get it — it was Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s challenging speech July 2 to the nation’s largest teachers union.

Perhaps the most important initiative on the administration’s whole, vast agenda is Duncan and President Barack Obama’s effort to bring America’s miserably performing public schools up to international standards.

As Duncan said, in seeking to enlist the National Education Association to join the effort, not fight it, “it’s an economic imperative and a moral imperative.

“It’s the civil rights issue of our generation ... a fight for social justice.”

What he’s up against, though, was documented this month in a report also ignored by the media.

In it, the bipartisan Citizens Commission on Civil Rights traced decades of “fierce opposition” by the NEA and American Federation of Teachers to reforms designed to hold schools and their faculties accountable for how their students perform.

“This resistance has posed a barrier to improving educational opportunity for the most disadvantaged students and closing the performance gap between them and their more advantaged peers,” the report charged.

Duncan showed as superintendent of Chicago schools that he could work with unions to implement reforms — for instance, enlisting a teacher panel to help design a system of financial rewards for all adults in schools that improved student performance.

But when he cited that example at the NEA’s convention in San Diego, he got heckled, leading him to joke, “you can boo — just don’t throw shoes, please.”

In a town hall session after his speech, one NEA delegate said, “Quite frankly, merit pay is union busting,” and got cheered by his colleagues.

The test of education policymakers, including Members of Congress, is whether they put the welfare of children first — or the interests of adult teachers, administrators, school board members and fellow politicians.

Duncan definitely puts kids first. As he told the NEA: “When inflexible seniority and rigid tenure rules put adults ahead of children, then we are putting the entire education system at risk. ...

“I believe that teacher unions are at a crossroads. These policies were created over the last century to protect the rights of teachers, but they have produced an industrial factory model of education” where no one is rewarded on the basis of performance, good or bad.

After Duncan’s speech, education blogger Whitney Tilson wrote, “This is a seminal event — an education secretary in a DEMOCRATIC administration went in front of the most important union in the country, that used to OWN the Democratic party and told them a whole lotta things they DIDN’T want to hear.

“This is the equivalent of Dick Cheney speaking at the NRA and espousing gun control.”

Duncan has spent the last few months challenging not only teachers, but governors, charter school operators and education researchers to adopt international standards, develop better tests to track student performance — and teacher performance — and reorganize chronically underperforming schools.

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