The long partnership between Democrats and teachers’ unions has frayed in recent years as the Obama administration has pursued policies that many teachers oppose, including performance ratings that link student test scores to evaluations and decisions about promotion or firing.
But the dissatisfaction hit a new level late last week when the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, with almost 3 million members, passed a resolution at its convention in Denver calling for the resignation of the secretary of education, Arne Duncan.
Dennis Van Roekel, the departing president of the union, said the resolution passed in a very close vote among the 7,500 delegates. Although delegates have presented similar resolutions in the past, this is the first time the measure has passed.
“I really do believe this is about something much bigger than Arne himself,” Van Roekel said. He said “frustration and anger” has mounted at the use of high-stakes tests in teacher evaluations.
Van Roekel added that teachers were angered by Duncan’s supportive response last month to a judge’s ruling in California that teacher tenure laws deprived students of their right to an education under the state constitution and violated their civil rights.
Analysts of labor politics said the resolution represented a watershed between the Democratic Party and teachers’ unions.
“Who would have predicted 10 years ago that a Democratic administration would pursue an agenda and teacher policies that are so vehemently opposed by the union?” said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University. “It’s a Nixon-goes-to-China kind of moment.”
Duncan briefly answered questions about the resolution during a media briefing at which he released the administration’s proposal to assign more effective and experienced teachers to low-income schools.
“I always try to stay out of local union politics, and I think most teachers do, too,” he said, adding that the administration “had a very good working relationship with the NEA in the past.”
He said he looked forward to working with the association’s new president, Lily Eskelsen García.
Since the NEA began endorsing presidential candidates with Jimmy Carter in 1976, the group has always backed Democrats.
But at the state level, both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers union, have contributed to the campaigns of Republican lawmakers - even those considered quite conservative - who opposed tenure changes or test-based teacher evaluations.
Eskelsen Garcia has indicated her interest in continuing to reach out to Republicans. She has also spoken out against using standardized testing to evaluate teachers.
Teachers who oppose the administration’s proposals said Democrats had taken them for granted for too long.
“We’re not getting anything for it politically,” said Anthony Cody, a founder of the Network for Public Education, a political action group, who retired after 24 years as a teacher and coach.
The American Federation of Teachers meets for its annual convention in Los Angeles starting Friday. Local affiliates submit resolutions before the convention, and none currently call for Duncan’s resignation.
The group’s president, Randi Weingarten, said in an email that “there’s plenty of opportunity for members to amend resolutions, so you never know what will happen on the floor.”
Democrats who embrace the changes pushed by the Obama administration said the resolution showed the waning influence of the teachers union.
“The Democratic Party used to outsource its education policy to the NEA,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, an advocacy group that supports test-based evaluations and changes to tenure.
“The Duncan vote,” Williams said, “made them look like the lunatic fringe. It’s not exactly the way you convince the public that you’ve got a good, credible idea.”