For the first time in a generation, there is labor unrest in America’s public schools. Strikes in Los Angeles, Denver, Oakland, and West Virginia as well as threatened strikes in other localities are more than teacher unions flexing their muscles to get more pay and benefits for their members. At issue everywhere is the success of charter schools and the perceived threat they pose to the nation’s public schools.
Indeed, Ray Domanico of the Manhattan Institute points out that the increased activism of the unions is occurring as the Democratic Party is drifting ever farther leftward.
What’s behind the recent spate of teacher strikes from Los Angeles to Denver, West Virginia, and Oakland? Local issues like across-the-board raises and increased educational spending are certainly a big part of teachers’ demands, but they could have been fought without a strike. The larger issue at play, and the real reason for these strikes, is a shift in the landscape of the party the teachers’ unions have always called home.
The Democratic Party continues to drift away from centrist ideas and toward a more “progressive” approach to labor and education, and teachers’ unions are prepared to exploit this shift. In a very real way, the teacher strikes across the country serve as a signal to the progressive left within the Democratic Party that union support is contingent on falling in step with their demands. Gone are the days of Obama-era bipartisan support for charter schools, teacher accountability, and merit pay. In addition to increased school spending, that means ending the use of merit-based pay and hindering the growth of non-union charter schools, and the progressive left, for better or for worse, is prepared to acquiesce.
That acquiescence runs counter to the interests of some of the Democrats’ core constituencies:
The unions’ move against charter schools, however, is deeply misguided. This move puts them in direct opposition to the exact families who are traditionally a core constituency of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. These working class and low-income black and Hispanic families constitute the vast majority of those who choose to send their children to high-performing charter schools in urban areas.
The threat posed by charter schools is not just in drawing students away from public schools. It is an existential threat in that the unions know that if they institute the kinds of reforms that work in charters, their power will be broken.
Video: Courtesy of Petra Christian Academy