On the last day of the National Education Association’s convention this summer, its outgoing general counsel, Bob Chanin, gave a speech for the ages. After sharing fond recollections of his 41 years as the NEA’s top lawyer, he switched gears and started lobbing grenades at “conservative and right-wing bastards,” including Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes. The NEA and its affiliates, by contrast, were “the nation’s leading advocates for public education and the type of liberal social and economic agenda that these groups find objectionable.” Chanin’s glowing portrait of the NEA was wildly wrong, of course, but so was his characterization of the union’s opponents. People of all political stripes—not just right-wing “bastards”—are starting to realize that the single biggest impediment to education reform is the NEA itself.

Take the nation’s 4,000 charter schools—public schools that operate with less red tape, fewer suffocating union rules, and a higher percentage of minorities and poor students than regular public schools do. In California, 12 of the top 15 public schools are charters, including three in Oakland that cater to exceptionally poor children. Los Angeles charters’ median score on California’s Academic Performance Index (API) was 728 in 2008, compared with 663 for regular public schools.

Who are the “right-wing bastards” who support charter schools? Well, there’s Los Angeles’s liberal-leaning school board, which looked at its large number of failing schools and voted 6–1 to turn 200 of the lowest performers into charters. There’s Steve Barr, a card-carrying Democrat who served in the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis and who now operates 17 successful Green Dot charter schools in L.A. And don’t forget Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that supports charters and that says, in its statement of principles, that American public schools, “once viewed romantically as avenues of opportunity for all, have become captive to powerful, entrenched interests that too often put the demands of adults before the educational needs of children.”

“Entrenched interests” is a thinly veiled reference, of course, to teachers’ unions like the NEA, whose position on charter schools is very clear. According to a resolution adopted at this year’s convention, “NEA shall oppose any initiative to greatly expand the growth of charter schools”—though “by no means should this effort conflict with the ongoing and necessary work of organizing charter school teachers.” Unfortunately, this “necessary” work hasn’t helped students. A study of charter schools in Boston by Harvard economist Tom Kane found that “students accepted by lottery at independently operated charter schools significantly outperformed students who lost the lottery and returned to district schools. But students accepted by lottery at charters run by the school district with unionized teachers experienced no benefit.”

The NEA fights school vouchers even more fiercely than it opposes charters. In Washington, D.C., where public schools are a national embarrassment—tops in spending, last in achievement—the union set its sights on the Opportunity Scholarship Program. This tiny but successful voucher program gave 1,700 financially strapped parents, mostly poor African-Americans, the opportunity to free their children from horrendous public schools, getting a few thousand of their tax dollars back to help pay the tuition at private schools of their choosing. A number of the 1,700 lucky lottery winners were able to attend Sidwell Friends, the same school that President Obama’s daughters attend.

Here’s what NEA president Dennis Van Roekel wrote to Democratic congressmen in March:

The National Education Association strongly opposes any extension of the District of Columbia private school voucher . . . program. We expect that Members of Congress who support public education, and whom we have supported, will stand firm against any proposal to extend the pilot program. Actions associated with these issues WILL be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 111th Congress.

Vouchers are not real education reform. . . . Opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA.

Three months later, Congress dutifully voted to kill the program. Who are the “right-wing bastards” here? The black parents and children who benefited from the voucher program?

Just two days before Chanin’s speech, the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights released a report, National Teachers’ Unions and the Struggle Over School Reform, maintaining that the teachers’ unions consistently blocked meaningful education reform and accusing the NEA of trying to end enforcement of the No Child Left Behind act. The unions “almost uniformly call for the spending of more money and the creation of more teaching positions which, of course, result in an increase in union membership, union income and union power,” wrote one of the authors, David Kilpatrick. Perhaps the report’s authors are the “right-wing bastards” Chanin was talking about? The problem is that Kilpatrick spent 12 years as a top union officer, while the study’s other authors include former senators Bill Bradley and Birch Bayh, D.C. congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and civil rights leader Roger Wilkins—all liberals.

That Democratic leaders and poor African-Americans in Washington have found common cause with the Wall Street Journal and Fox News shows that school reform is neither a liberal nor a conservative issue. While Chanin champions the power of an entrenched union and belittles those who oppose it, people of goodwill across the political spectrum fight back for real education reform.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next