RealClear Education: Education Focus Needed to Help America’s Working Families

By Charles Barone, DFER Policy Director

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RCEd Commentary

In America’s longstanding fight to expand job opportunities and improve social equality, the largest socioeconomic influencer is often grossly forgotten: education. And the country’s most powerful labor group can be the one to change that, if it resolves the conflicting interests between union members whose children attend public schools and teachers unions that often work against the interests of those same children.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO – the nation’s largest labor federation — delivered a widely-publicized address last Tuesday aimed at communicating organized labor’s priorities to the 2016 Presidential field. Trumka stressed that “the problems of income inequality and stagnant wages are so clear, so abundant, that only direct, sweeping action to change the rules will put our nation on a fresh path of progress. We are hungry for a path to a prosperous 21st Century.”

Economic statistics squarely support Trumka’s claims. Fair wages for all workers are crucial. Salary increases for those in the low-to-middle income range are inarguably long overdue.

Education, however, was something about which Trumka could and should have had something more to say than his short statement about the need for public investment — both because of the inextricable link between access to high-quality education and future job security and financial stability, and because the vast majority of union households send their children to public schools.

Teachers unions across the country, including the American Federation of Teachers, an AFL-CIO member and second largest teachers union in the country, are working to undermine or halt teacher evaluation policies. In contrast, a poll we conducted earlier this year found that a majority of both union and non-union household members support clear benchmarks to measure the effectiveness of teachers and school administrators.

Teachers unions have consistently opposed efforts that would reform teacher tenure rules. And yet our polling found that 74 percent of union households support the idea that we “need major reforms to teacher tenure system because layoffs should be determined by effectiveness, not seniority.”

And, similar to numbers among voters across political ideologies and demographics, 57 percent of union households have a favorable view of charter schools that provide parents with an opportunity to choose to send their child to a different public school if their own local school is failing.

Trumka’s speech was mainly aimed at Democrats and, of course, right now that pretty much means Hillary Clinton, the only declared Democratic presidential candidate and the overwhelming favorite of primary voters. Those covering the Trumka speech noted that Clinton has reached out over the past months to many labor unions and is perhaps closer to AFT President Randi Weingarten than to any other labor leader.

But if candidate Clinton truly wants to speak to the interests of “everyday voters,” especially union members, our polls and others suggest that she would be well advised to balance the AFT agenda with the concerns of other unions’ voters. Trumka and others could play a crucial role here as arbiters of that balancing act.

All of this is completely consistent with the broader AFL-CIO agenda. Higher benchmarks for teacher performance are one of the best arguments for higher teacher pay. Interventions in schools that are falling short of preparing students for college and careers are a necessary component in ensuring the U.S. workforce can prosper in a 21st Century global economy.

If Republicans want to make this a fight over collective bargaining, we say: “bring it.” If collective bargaining were the obstacle to better public education, Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker would be presiding over the highest-performing education system in the country. The reality is quite the opposite, and we are determined to keep standing up for collective bargaining rights and not allow the Republican Party to use platitudes about education to hide their ulterior efforts to undermine unions as a whole.

What we need is a political coming together led by labor unions who represent both parents and educators to help bridge the conflict between the interests of the few and the shared interests of union families and American workers’ families. Unions have repeatedly served to speak for our communities as a whole — the voice of working families to push for fair wages, fair work days, fair treatment by employers. The AFL-CIO now has the opportunity to speak on behalf of working families who want to make sure that their children have a fair shot at a high-quality education. Trumka and Clinton, together, could be a powerful force in making that dream a reality.

Charles Barone is policy director of Democrats for Education Reform.

Find the full story here at RealClear Education.