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Democrats Who Don't Believe in Change

The photo ops and sound bites beginning Monday night will all be designed to show Democratic unity -- Tim Kaine thinks Joe Biden was a great vice presidential choice, Hillary Clinton thinks Barack Obama is the tops, we’re all together for change, and so forth.

But one pre-convention event, at the Denver Art Museum Sunday afternoon, showed that at least on one big issue -- education -- it’s not all one happy family.

Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, his Newark counterpart Cory Booker, the Rev. Al Sharpton, New York City’s superintendent Joel Klein and other pols and educators gathered to push for merit pay for teachers and other accountability measures for urban schools and in other ways take on the status quo. The biggest obstacle, they all agreed, is “special interests,” by which for the most part they mean teachers unions -- whose members will make up about a tenth of the delegates at the convention, according to NEA executive director John Wilson.

Sharpton described the terrible schools open to many poor black children as the biggest civil rights issue of the 21st century. “If our parents could stand up to biting dogs in Alabama, we can stand up to special interests in America’s cities,” he said.

Fenty said he supports Obama and his message of change -- “and change is most important in education.” And he offered ongoing teacher contract talks in the District as “a real life example.” Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s proposed contract, which includes merit pay for teachers who achieve results, is “absolutely right for the kids of DC.” But the American Federation of Teachers, “which I don’t think does anything for the District of Columbia,” is weighing in against the contract. Why? “The only thing I can figure out is, the people who are elected [as union officials] want to keep their jobs.”

The NEA’s Wilson, in the audience, told me he found the references to special interests, and the exclusion of unions from the conference, “disrespectful to teachers, and naïve…. You’re not going to change the current system until you bring in teachers and their collective voice.”

Indeed, both big teachers unions insist they favor transformation and reform. But any time the talk goes to pay for performance or other ways to attract the best teachers to the worst schools, they change the subject to the problems with parents, or say the need for change is so big that we shouldn’t get bogged down with little tactical things like the right to get rid of teachers who don’t perform. There was a lot of hope expressed in the auditorium Sunday that Obama would stand up to the unions -- and for children who are being deprived a decent chance in life. So far, Obama hasn’t done much more than nibble at that one.

By Fred Hiatt  | August 24, 2008; 6:30 PM ET
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Right on Hiatt! What the heck do those Democrats think they're doing arguing about public policy in public?

Tell us Hiatt, what's the word from the GOP Central Committee on these issues? (So all your Republican readers will know what to think.)

Posted by: Paulie200 | August 25, 2008 3:39 AM | Report abuse

You're talking about the issue of merit pay from a narrow and biased perspective. Principals and Administrators routinely confuse leadership and authority in NYC. Basing teacher evaluations on students scores will never be accepted ( as currently envisoned ) due to the ability of principals and department heads to assign teachers to any class they choose. Create a problem for the school and get assigned to a class that will be harder to bring up to standards. If the various heads of school systems were serious about merit pay they would focus on year over year improvements regardless of whether or not the student met the state wide goals. As it is being suggested now a HS student who has a 5th grade reading level ( yes, 5th grade) who sees their reading level come up to 8th grade would result in an Unsatisfactory rating for the teacher as they did not meet state wide standards for the age and grade level of this HS student. In that situation both thestudent and the teacher should be recognized.

A second issue, and an egregious assumption, is that this is about the money for the teachers. The concerns of teachers go way beyond the money, no teacher I know became a teacher to get rich.

Posted by: J.T. | August 25, 2008 7:09 AM | Report abuse

Another reason to wonder at the motives of teacher's unions. The students fail, but it isn't the fault of the teachers. it's the parents, or society. No change allowed. New ideas aren't even tried, and failure persists. This is more proof that labor unions are concentrated evil.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 25, 2008 8:48 AM | Report abuse

Amazing how quick you Repubs are to throw the public school teachers who taught YOU how to read and write under the bus.

Or did you ALL go to private schools?

Posted by: RadioMom | August 25, 2008 9:19 AM | Report abuse

RadioMom, I am in high school and I am a republican. You democrats like to brush everyone with a large swab of paint.

Posted by: TheTrekRockStar | August 25, 2008 10:04 AM | Report abuse

I guess we'll see realtively soon whether or not Fenty and Klein are on the right track. I bet they are.

Posted by: WG | August 25, 2008 11:05 AM | Report abuse

I consider this a good sign that Democrats are saying "No" to unions, particularly teacher's unions on the subject of education reform. I say as much on my blog at this morning.

Posted by: Kevin Bliss | August 25, 2008 11:11 AM | Report abuse

My mom was the shop steward for the teachers union. She always said that there were two problems with schools:

1. The School District (i.e. the bureaucracy)
2. The Teachers Union.

Merit Pay can easily be solved by paying teachers based on the improvement in the students scores. Then teachers might prefer students who were behind.

My mom taught in a poor neighborhood. But if the parents were willing to support her, by the end of the year, all of her kids were brought up to grade level.

The consequence? She had more insubordination charges in her file then anyone.

Posted by: Pierce Wetter | August 25, 2008 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Hiatt is an Republican authoritarian freak of nature and a cowardly America-hater, too. That draft dodgering coward should promptly be deported to North Korea. Period.

Posted by: Parakeeta Byrd | August 25, 2008 3:40 PM | Report abuse

The urban school problem is two-pronged: First, too many urban parents fail to send children to school who are prepared to learn (or else ). This is called good parenting and it knows no required income level.

Second, teachers unions are too powerful and unwilling to risk tying pay to performance (or to tenure)lest the leadership suffer the wrath of the rank and file.

The only recipe that will produce a brighter future for our urban schools and the students who attend them is true school choice, with or without the support of the teachers' unions, and the kind of good parenting that produces kids who are as accountable as we want our teachers to be.

Posted by: James R.Heckel | August 25, 2008 5:18 PM | Report abuse

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