President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, blew up my social media feeds by announcing that the union of 1.6 million would officially endorse Hillary Clinton for President of the United States — more than 200 days before voters assemble for the Iowa Caucuses on February 1, 2016. The news makes the American Federation of Teachers the first major labor union to weigh in with an official endorsement of any candidate for President, and the union executive board insists that it was the result of careful deliberation and consultation with members:
Suffice to say that my social media feeds lean harder to the left than most, so it is likely that the immediately negative replies that came pouring in are not precisely representative:
Some critics of the early endorsement assert that this was essentially inevitable given the long time close association between Randi Weingarten and Secretary Clinton and that Ms. Weingarten sits on the board of the pro-Clinton political action committee, Priorities USA. For her part, Ms. Weingarten and the executive board insist that the union undertook extensive outreach to members, including meetings with candidates, town halls, surveys and the use of its “You Decide” website to reach more than “1 million members.”
While AFT members I follow on social media have complained about the sample size of the official poll (1,150 members overall with a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points; 683 Democratic primary voters with a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points), I have to admit that given proper sampling methods, such sample sizes are entirely valid, even if the relatively tiny total numbers compared to the size of the union leave many members feeling left out. It should also be noted that the survey results are a little bit “massaged” in the official announcements. When President Weingarten says that those polled favor Hillary Clinton by a 3 to 1 margin, that is true of Democratic primary voters only. The survey reports that the 60% of AFT members identify as either Democrats or Independents, meaning that 40% of members are Republicans or third party supporters. Presumably, in making the statement that AFT members back the Clinton candidacy by a 3 to 1 margin, that excludes the opinions of Republican members or of independent or third party members who lean conservative.
The same survey goes on to make a number of salient points about members’ overall positive assessment of Secretary Clinton’s chances, their likelihood to vote for her over top tier Republican rivals, and their assessment of her ability to handle major issues. Surveyed members give Secretary Clinton an 11 to 1 edge over Senator Bernie Sanders in electability, give her a 41 point edge over Sanders in “standing up for public education,” and she holds a wider margin than Senator Sanders over possible Republican nominees such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. The report, in fact, goes well out of its way to highlight Secretary Clinton’s margins over Senator Bernie Sanders even though former Rhode Island Senator and Governor Lincoln Chafee, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and former Virginia Senator Jim Webb are all declared candidates as well.
Smart money suggests that Secretary Clinton’s path to the nomination is fairly smooth (she secured 27 of 46 Democratic Senators’ endorsements by April). However, with more than 6 months before the first contests with actual voters, it is not unreasonable to wait for a few more months while union members learn more about the candidates. To be certain, Senator Sanders faces a huge struggle to gain enough supporters to prevent Secretary Clinton from winning the nomination. He is enjoying strong support already in both Iowa and New Hampshire where voters’ early attention to the race may benefit him, but his national appeal to Democratic voters may peak as the contest moves to states with large non-white populations with whom he has found little traction so far. Of course, a year out from the Iowa Caucuses in 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama was only just gaining ground on then-Senator Hillary Clinton among African American voters, so while Senator Sanders has his work cut out for him, there is time for a few surprises.
Which goes back to how the AFT polling is being presented. Yes, it shows Secretary Clinton with large leads on many important factors — but possibly well before many members are well informed about the candidates’ positions on issues such as public education and at a point when Secretary Clinton’s almost 25 years on the national stage lends her immediate advantages in name recognition over her rivals. By endorsing so far ahead of the actual contests, the union risks turning some members’ attention away from the candidates’ positions and it allows Secretary Clinton to claim a mantra as the public education candidate — perhaps well before she has actually earned it.
At this point, it is easy to anticipate a question: do I think that Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, or Chris Christie would be better public education candidates? So let me be clear. No. Good Lord, no. No. No. No. However, it is 2015, and if we have learned something about politicians and public education after two terms of President George W. Bush and nearly two terms of President Barack Obama, it is this:
We don’t need a public education candidate who is simply better than a likely Republican nominee. We need a public education candidate who is better than President Barack Obama.
In 2008, candidate Obama spoke to the National Education Association two months before the election:
“Math and science are not the opposite of art and music. Those things are compatible and we want kids to get a well-rounded education. Part of the problem we’ve had is that ‘No Child Left Behind,’ the law that was passed by Bush, said we want high standards, which is good, but they said we are going to measure those high standards only by a single high stakes standardized test that we are going to apply during the middle of the school year…a whole bunch of schools said we gotta teach to this test, and art and music isn’t tested… It’s a shame.”
We know how this has turned out. Through the Race to the Top program and promise of waivers from NCLB punitive measures, President Obama’s Department of Education has made matters even worse by pushing for the rapid adoption of common standards before anyone could assess their quality or prepare teachers for adoption, no decrease in the emphasis on tested subjects over the rest of the curriculum, and the adoption of student growth measures in individual teacher assessment — which ignores what the research says we can fairly and effectively do with test data. While Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin is staking his political future on being the nation’s biggest enemy of public sector unions, and while former Governor Jeb Bush is a devoted member of the corporate education reform club, it is not as if the Democratic Party is bereft of leading figures whose education policies line up neatly with corporate reform’s trifecta of testing, punishment, and privatizing public schools. From New Jersey Senator Cory Booker to Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, prominent Democrats have been influenced by and endorsed what currently passes for reform in American education.
So it frankly isn’t enough that Secretary Clinton is “electable” and that she would be somewhat better for public education than a likely rival in the national election. I want to know if she is going to be any better than the last 7 years of the Obama administration’s education policy led by his horrendous Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and backed by an entire chorus line of Democrats taking money from the same interests leading the charge against our public schools.
Will Hillary Clinton be better if she reaches the Oval Office?
My tea leaves are not that hopeful on the subject. How did the hedge fund front group, Democrats for Education Reform, react to Secretary Clinton’s announcement? With elation:
“We join Democrats and Americans around the country in celebrating Hillary Clinton’s announcement that she will seek the Presidency. Hillary Clinton has a proven track record of looking out for students—from her days as Arkansas’ First Lady when she spearheaded efforts to reform and improve the state’s public schools through to her efforts as U.S. Secretary of State to stand up for the right of every child to attend school. We are hopeful that she continues that strong record, and carries on President Obama’s legacy of promoting quality teachers and benchmarks that give every student a chance to succeed no matter their background.”
DFER does not exist as some genuine grassroots efforts by rank and file Democrats to support change in education. It is the brainchild of hedge fund managers like Whitney Tilson who invented the group to influence elected Democrats to adopt education positions more common among Republicans:
The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…
Financed by groups like the Walton Family Foundation, DFER and its companion organization, Education Reform Now, funnel money and influence to Democrats who in turn pledge to support standardized testing, weakening teachers’ unions, and replacing public schools with privately operated charter schools. If they are overjoyed with Secretary Clinton’s candidacy, she has some serious outreach to classroom teachers she needs to do.
Peter Greene of Curmudgucation also notes that Secretary Clinton has deep ties to the Center for American Progress whose founder, John Podesta, is serving as the chair of her campaign. While CAP has an overall left leaning agenda, on education it has been a predictable and reliable ally of corporate reform, pushing for the Common Core standards, emphasizing testing and attacking efforts to reduce it, and generally keeping up the drum beat of rhetoric portraying our nation’s schools as failures without any serious examination of childhood and community poverty.
Both of these examples are a bit of “guilt by association,” but if the rank and file teachers who make up a union like the AFT are going to see their leadership offer the entire union’s endorsement this early in the contest, they have a right to know what Hillary Clinton would actually do as President that is significantly better for our nation’s schools than what we have suffered for a decade and half now.
What could Secretary Clinton do, right now, that would be a beginning of the outreach that should have preceded this endorsement?
- Instead of playing the naif on how “politics” has gotten into the Common Core State Standards, she could recognize that they were political from the very start and promise states that they will suffer no consequences if they want to genuinely evaluate them and make informed decisions about whether or not to continue. I believe that people of good conscience can differ on the wisdom of common standards and on the quality of these standards, but it is hard to escape the deep flaws with how they were developed and disseminated with no significant public engagement and on premises of a national crisis in education that is misleading and distracting from our appalling childhood poverty levels. If Secretary Clinton moves the conversation in that direction, I will listen.
- Secretary Clinton should unequivocally call out the legal assaults on teachers’ workplace protections for what they are: billionaires (David Welch) hiring millionaires (Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown) to ruin the livelihoods of middle class teachers. In doing so, they not only rely upon entirely false narratives about what tenure is and whether or not tenured teachers are actually a root cause of struggling schools, but also they are aiming to weaken or destroy among the last large groups of unionized, middle class professionals. If Secretary Clinton clearly denounces these efforts and pledges to support teachers under attack (as opposed to current Education Secretary Arne Duncan who essentially praised the Vergara decision), I will listen.
- Secretary Clinton must call for a genuine draw down of standardized testing from its current place where it threatens to consume public education, and call efforts to tie teacher job evaluations to standardized test scores what they are — failures with no backing in legitimate research. She should denounce Secretary Duncan’s repeated insults to parents protesting how testing is consuming their children’s schools and demonstrate that she at least understands why those parents are exercising one of the few powers they have by opting their children out of the examination, data collection, and school punishment system initiated with No Child Left Behind and made worse under Race to the Top. If she shows that she actually understands the research on teacher evaluation and that she understands and appreciates what parents are saying, I will listen.
- Secretary Clinton should tell Democrats for Education Reform and Education Reform Now (and the whole host of advocacy groups out there seeking to capture policy makers and funnel as much of our educational commons into private hands as possible) to get stuffed. I don’t pretend that this is easy. Candidates for the Presidency need astronomical sums of cash, and these people promise it. But Barack Obama’s Presidency and the actions of a host of other Democratic office holders has taught public education advocates that who a politicians owes for money can matter more than the voters who elected them in the first place. But these donors are not in public education to do good; they are in it to do right well, and if Secretary Clinton refuses to accept any more support from them after having gotten the AFT endorsement, I can promise that I will listen.