How Al Shanker Blew Up No Child Left Behind

When the prospects for renewal of the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) blew up during a marathon congressional hearing last Monday, there was no shortage of ready explanations:

The "staff draft" proposal put out by committee leaders had gone too far (or not far enough) in fixing the current law. The delicate and unlikely alliance supporting the law for the past five years -- business, civil rights groups, and the Bush administration -- had finally fallen apart. The politics surrounding the law were changed now that Democrats had gained nominal control of Congress.

But the real, underlying cause is simpler than that: It was former American Federation of Teachers president Al Shanker's fault.

Just as the September 10 hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee began, the 340,000-member California Teachers Association surprised nearly everyone with an all-out campaign to block the "Pelosi-Miller" reauthorization bill, which had not yet even been introduced.

"It is a blatant attack on collective bargaining," said a CTA vice president Dean Vogel about the proposal, which he worried was going to be moved quickly through the House. "It makes a bad law even worse."

Then things got worse. Towards the end of the day, Miller got into a public, seemingly-unanticipated spat with Reg Weaver, head of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, about the union leader's criticism of a proposed merit pay program, an issue that typically raises concerns for teachers.

"You can dance all around you want," said a frustrated Miller to Weaver from the dais. "You approved the language [two years ago]."

Weaver may have agreed to it before -- accounts vary -- but he and his members clearly did so no longer. And the AFT, the NEA's smaller counterpart, didn't either.

After seven hours and 40-something witnesses -- none of whom really liked the proposal -- the hearing ended in acrimony and exhaustion.

"I don't see much hope for an NCLB consensus, and I don't see much hope for NCLB 2.0 anytime soon," wrote former USDE official Checker Finn just after the hearing concluded.

Many observers were surprised at the strength and increasingly strident nature of the union opposition, both in Washington and in California.

"It seemed like the NEA's tone changed," observed Kevin Carey of the Education Sector, who testified at the Monday hearing. "You don't see people go after prominent members of Congress in their own back yards very often."

Others saw something familiar in the turn of events.

"I found that they were rarely satisfied," says Charles Barone, who used to work with the NEA as Miller's Deputy Staff Director. "They frequently came back to ask for additional changes once an agreement has been reached."

This was not how things were supposed to go.

For over five years, a bipartisan group of stalwart NCLB supporters including some key civil rights groups, business groups, the Committee leaders, and the Secretary of Education had stuck together against wave after wave of criticism of the law (and even the administration's inability to fund it fully).

During the past nine months, these same groups had worked towards a reauthorization plan that they hoped would address most if not all of the many complaints about the law.

But few of these allies were pleased with the early result Miller produced, which was released in two parts just before and after the Labor Day weekend.

Secretary Spellings, a longtime Miller ally, called Miller's changes "Washington wonkery" and suggested that the current law, with all its flaws, would be better than what he was proposing.

Amy Wilkins of The Education Trust, which helped craft the original law, said Miller's compromise "sacrifices what's best for poor and minority children."

Editorial pages including The New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today all expressed concern that Miller was going too far in softening up the law and urged him to stand fast.

Most immediately problematic was the fact that Miller's plan failed to win the support of the teachers whose objections he had worked so hard to address.

The proposal didn't go far enough towards making the law more flexible, and -- most objectionable of all -- it included new provisions that would spread merit pay plans into more parts of the country.

Merit pay -- rewarding teachers based on some definition of performance rather than seniority and credentials -- has a long and controversial history in education circles.

And so, this proposed expansion brought on the wrath of the NEA and AFT.

That's where Al Shanker comes in.

Shanker, the charismatic former teachers union leader, is known to many for weekly paid columns in The New York Times (and The New Republic) and his embrace of innovative and controversial ideas (national standards, peer review of teachers, charter schools) that were outside the traditional purview of trade unions.

Out this month, Shanker's much-deserved biography, Tough Liberal, details these and many other accomplishments over nearly 40 years as an education leader. Read it and you'll understand how he became the darling of so many lawmakers, journalists, and policy wonks -- even conservative ones.

But few of Shanker's reform-minded ideas were ever adopted. Unionizing the nation's classroom teachers -- directly through the AFT and indirectly through the NEA (which was forced to follow Shanker's lead) -- is his main legacy.

And, in going after popular and powerful members like Pelosi and Miller, the NEA and CTA are acting to protect teachers' interests just like Shanker did.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Collective bargaining for teachers raised wages, improved working conditions, and ensured ongoing support for public education in legislatures around the country. Millions of teachers and their families benefited, and many would argue that schoolchildren did as well.

And, it could be argued, the Miller proposal unwisely intrudes into the affairs of districts and local unions.

But union advocacy for teachers cuts both for teachers and against change, and regularly requires a show of strength.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, Shanker was so aggressive (and effective) in winning benefits for teachers -- through citywide strikes and other actions -- that he became the butt of a joke in Woody Allen's 1973 comedy, Sleeper.

In the movie, we learn that, some 200 years into the future, civilization will be destroyed by a madman named Al Shanker who gets hold of a nuclear warhead.

In real life, of course, the fiery union leader didn't destroy civilization. He just organized the teachers, whose PACs gave nearly $4 million to federal candidates in 2006.

In so doing, however, Shanker may well have planted land mines in the path of school reform efforts that followed -- including, for the time being at least, the renewal of No Child Left Behind.

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who blogs at This Week In Education.