This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Teachers’ union leaders say it’s been a tough 16 years for them – ever since George W. Bush swept into office with an aggressive reform agenda that Barack Obama has largely carried forward.
But labor leaders have held their heads noticeably higher at this week’s Democratic National Convention, thanks to recent changes in the education landscape and the party’s nomination of Hillary Clinton, who is considered a more reliable ally than Obama has been.
"I think what we’re seeing right now gives me hope," said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, head of the National Education Association (NEA), at a Wednesday forum hosted by The Atlantic magazine.
Teachers’ unions have historically been pillars of support for Democratic politicians, both in terms of organizing and financial backing. During the Obama years, however, that patronage didn’t buy much favor. The Obama administration pushed increased teacher accountability, school turnarounds, and other education reforms that have long irked unions. That tension manifested in 2014 when the NEA called on Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, to resign. It was perhaps the most striking example of how far the Democratic Party had drifted from union orbit.
Recent events, however, paint a far sunnier picture for the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Late last year, Congress passed a new education bill to replace No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era law that paved the way for many reform measures. In March, a Supreme Court deadlock thwarted – at least for now – a challenge to the union-dues structure that could have greatly diminished union clout.
Now union leaders get to parade around Philadelphia in support of a new Democratic presidential nominee.