Public education, always a contentious political issue since the advent of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, not to mention skyrocketing student debt, has been in the news a lot more than usual as of late. The American Federation of Teachers made news back in July for its controversial early endorsement of Hillary Clinton. Its larger cousin, the National Education Association, has just provoked more controversy by also endorsing Hillary Clinton. Unlike in past presidential elections, both the AFT and NEA endorsements have been criticized as ignoring the will of rank-and-file teachers.
Countless teachers support Clinton’s populist challenger, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and feel that the leadership boards of both the AFT and the NEA have acted in haste. The endorsements are not surprising: Clinton, a former U.S. Senator (D-NY) and U.S. Secretary of State, is a widely-known Washington power player who has locked up virtually all mainstream Democratic support. The awkward differences between the feelings of union leadership boards and the feelings of rank-and-file members are creating a narrative that plays to Bernie Sanders’ strengths.
Teachers, long known for being subjected to the whims of top-down reforms, are again being subjected to top-down directives against their will. When union leadership decides to hastily endorse Hillary Clinton without addressing dissent within the ranks, its smacks of nepotism and cronyism. It reeks of a backroom deal.
The news that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is stepping down in December, and that his replacement is just as controversial to teachers, only adds to the ire of classroom educators.
As a teacher, I want Bernie Sanders to seize this opportunity to advocate in favor of empowering rank-and-file teachers. He should mention that union leadership is operating independently of teachers’ wishes and failing to address discontent within the ranks. He should vocally break with the Obama administration and its focus on standardized testing and tying teacher evaluations to test scores. With his powerful and optimistic goals in regard to higher education, Sanders should seize the opportunity to champion teacher empowerment.
K-12 teachers and college instructors must be fairly compensated and treated as skilled professionals. They should be respected and valued, not scapegoated. Education is neither a commodity nor a guarantee: It is a process that everyone has a right to undertake, regardless of ability to pay, but for which they must work. This is what teachers want. We want a candidate who will vociferously argue for what we, as classroom teachers, want. At both the K-12 and the college levels, we need a president who supports education, not data-driven “results” that have led to rampant grade inflation and a decline in graduates’ critical thinking skills.
With union boards handing early endorsements to Hillary Clinton without letting rank-and-file members discuss the other candidates, teachers’ demands are not being heard. As a progressive populist, Bernie Sanders must protest these closed-door decisions. The recent events concerning the AFT, NEA, and Department of Education should give him several powerful talking points at the Democratic debates on October 13. Decisions concerning millions of classroom teachers, instructors, lecturers, and professors are not being made in consultation with them.
When she is questioned about the merits of these closed-door endorsements and how she plans to truly advocate for classroom educators, Clinton will wither at the debate podium.
Educators are not happy, and Bernie Sanders needs to seize the opportunity to champion our cause. We will stand in legion with him. As a high school economics teacher who fully supports tuition-free higher education for qualified students and universal health care for all citizens, I want Bernie Sanders to stand up to the status quo being entrenched by the AFT, NEA, Department of Education, and Hillary Clinton.