Odd Couple 2016: Teachers Unions & Congressional Republicans

I alluded to an unlikely allyship in yesterday's "Reading List," but Jonathan Chait makes the point more directly today in New York Magazine:

Congress is embroiled in an education policy fight that, while it revolves around esoteric policy details, profoundly clarifies the strange new battle lines on education policy ... The policy fight in question is an Obama administration proposal to require school districts to use Title I funds to help their poorest schools more than their richest ones. (Even within a school districts, more affluent schools often spend more per child than poorer schools.) Not surprisingly, organizations like the NAACP, the Children’s Defense Fund, and the National Council of La Raza support this idea. Also unsurprisingly, Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, opposes it. What may be surprising to some is who has joined Alexander: the two giant teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association ... The emerging alliance between teachers unions and Republicans runs against decades of built-up cultural distrust. But the interests of the two partners are closely aligned.

The point about interest alignment is the critical takeaway. Unions exist to bargain on behalf of, and protect the interests of, their members. Sometimes those interests align with those of vulnerable kids, but that's increasingly rare, as teachers' contracts have led to even more inequitable disparities in the allocation of money in talent. This study from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, makes the point elegantly and convincingly.

In Massachusetts the alignment of interests is similarly complicated. The local teachers' union plans to spend almost ten million dollars (although insiders suspect the total will end up being higher) to prevent the expansion of the state's public charter schools, a disproportionate number of which serve low-income families in the city of Boston. That fight is likely to pit the teachers unions and the state's mostly white, nominally "progressive," suburbs against parents in Boston who want to expand the limited footprint of the country's highest performing public charter schools. It's ironic to me that those suburbs and their educational isolation are the direct result of white flight, in response to the desegregation efforts of the 1970s. Suburban voters and politicians will argue that charter schools take money from their local schools, ignoring the fact that their segregated housing and tax dollars rob poor kids of equitable funding everyday. In the meantime, a usually nascent conversation about the racial politics in Boston is picking up steam, and interests and allies are sure to shift in the coming months.

The lesson here seems to be that the historical alliances of the past cannot be taken for granted, if we center the real interests of families of color, and low-income families, in education politics. The Democrats don't seem to be able to count on the unions at the national level, and vulnerable families can no longer count on organized labor to be local allies either.