Arne Duncan dismisses union call for resignation
By: Stephanie Simon and Caitlin Emma
July 7, 2014 01:59 PM EDT
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has brushed off a call for his resignation from the National Education Association.
The NEA adopted the resolution last week at its representative assembly in Denver, where the air was charged with anger and members buzzed with frustration at Duncan and other education reformers — especially their emphasis on high-stakes testing.
The resolution blamed Duncan for a “failed education agenda” consisting of policies that “undermine public schools and colleges, the teaching education professionals, and education unions.”
The teachers union has considered similar resolutions in previous years, but this was the first time it won approval from a majority of the 9,000 delegates attending the NEA’s annual convention.
But Duncan couldn’t be baited.
“Secretary Duncan looks forward to continuing to work with NEA and its new leadership,” spokeswoman Dorie Nolt said over the weekend. And at a White House press briefing Monday, during which Duncan outlined a plan to ensure all students have access to highly effective teachers, Duncan said he was “trying to stay out of local union politics.”
“We’ve had a very good working relationship with NEA in the past,” he said and congratulated President-elect Lily Eskelsen García on her win.
Duncan also noted that the president of the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, was joining him Monday for the rollout of the teacher equity proposal. He said had NEA members not been at their convention, “I think they would have stood with us on this” today, too. The AFT is not expected to consider a resolution calling on Duncan to step down at their convention, which starts Friday.
At the NEA convention, President Barack Obama’s video address at the opening of the assembly got tepid applause — nothing like the cheers and screams that greeted union leaders when they took the stage.
And even members who support Obama have grown increasingly frustrated with his education policies and Duncan’s approach to the job.
“We do need to be more confrontational with them, because I don’t think they fully get the picture,” said Antonio White, a technology teacher from Florida.
Teachers have been especially furious that Duncan has promoted measuring the quality of teachers — and schools — by their students’ performance on standardized tests.
“For us, one thing is clear. Before anything is going to get better: It’s the Testing, Stupid. Better yet, it’s the stupid testing,” Eskelsen García told delegates. She called the accountability systems that Duncan has pushed “phony” and harmful to students, teachers and the teaching profession.
Outgoing NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said his members were “understandably frustrated” with Duncan and vowed to keep pushing the department to develop “student-centered” policies “that are influenced by those who know best— educators working in our classrooms and in our schools — rather than profiteers.”
Van Roekel didn’t call out Duncan by name, but he did blast Democrats for Education Reform, a group that supports Duncan, in his keynote address. He told delegates that teachers everywhere have had enough of being “attacked” by during a reform era that he said began with the George W. Bush administration and continues to this day.
“We are all impacted and demoralized by these attacks. And your feelings are totally justified. I mean, really, 12 years is plenty long enough to evaluate their strategy of mandatory testing and test-based accountability,” Van Roekel said. “Plain and simple, their strategy has failed America’s students, especially students who are poor and students of color. And I say to you that it is simply not acceptable to continue down this path. The direction must change.”
The call for Duncan to quit originated with the California Teachers Association, which was particularly outraged at Duncan’s support of a recent court that struck down job protections in the state that are fiercely protected by the unions.
Duncan said the Vergara v. California ruling in June presents an opportunity to set a meaningful bar for teacher tenure. CTA said his stance shows “disrespect for the hard-working educators in our schools” and a “lack of understanding of education law and policy.”
“Since the beginning, Duncan’s department has been led by graduates of the Broad Academy, Education Trust-West and other organizations determined to scapegoat teachers and their unions,” the California group wrote. “Most recently, some of these former Obama administration staffers announced a national campaign attacking educators’ rights.”
“Authentic education change only comes when all stakeholders — teachers, parents, administrators and the community — work together to best meet the needs of the students in their school or college,” the union adds. “Teachers are not the problem. Teachers are part of the solution. And it’s time we have a Secretary of Education who understands and believes that.”