Have Obama’s Education Policies Weakened The Democratic Party?

“I wanted kids who could be critical thinkers. They just want kids who can work at Walmart and the other big corporations that give them money.”

During the Republican and Democratic conventions, The Hechinger Report will publish a new story each day, examining what the party proposals might mean for the future of education. Our staff reporters will provide education coverage from Cleveland and Philadelphia. 

PHILADELPHIA — Are you better off now than you were eight years ago? For the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), the answer to this perennial election question has to be a resounding ‘no.’

Over the last decade and a half, the union — which represents the city’s public school teachers, nurses, counselors and support staff — has been nearly halved, its ranks shrinking from 21,000 to 11,000. Come election time, that means 10,000 fewer members to go door to door campaigning, 10,000 fewer people paying union dues to finance political ads and get-out-the-vote efforts.

While teachers unions have long played a key role in getting Democrats across the country into political office, the PFT’s decline is the result of bipartisan policies.

Over the course of President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, a coalition formed among his administration, governors, many of whom are Republican, and big city education reformers. Together, they doubled down on former Republican President George W. Bush’s education policies, pledging to turn around long-struggling urban school districts like Philadelphia’s by holding schools accountable for their students’ test scores. If results didn’t improve, officials could tap federal funds for turning around schools, to either close a school or transform it into a privately operated, publicly funded charter school, the vast majority of which employ non-unionized staff. The Obama administration also, through its Race to the Top program, increased federal funding to promote the expansion of charters and touted charters like Mastery, Philadelphia’s largest charter network

Now, a third of Philadelphia’s public school students attend charter schools and the union has withered, in a state that will be a key battleground this November. In Ohio, another key state, three in 10 public school students now attend charters in Dayton and in Cleveland. As the Democratic Party gathers in Philadelphia for its convention this week, an open question is whether Obama’s education policies weakened a key element of the party’s political machinery — and whether Hillary Clinton, the presumptive presidential nominee, will continue those policies.

Despite the PFT’s huge membership losses, Hillary Linardopoulos, the legislative representative for the PFT, says that she doesn’t think of her union as weakened, but energized in the face of threats.

“It’s not that we have been weakened, but we have been under constant action,” said Linardopoulos. “Look at what was happening in my classroom; I realized that I needed to become more politically active, got engaged in the political battle against [Pennsylvania’s former governor, Republican Tom Corbett’s] reelection bid … And it wasn’t just me, our members saw so clearly what he had done to their working conditions and our students’ learning conditions.”

Linardopoulos points to recent Democratic victories in state and local elections as proof that PFT still is an important player. 

“We fought to get a really progressive mayor, who campaigned on our platform of community schools,” said Linardopoulos. “Our members spent evenings and weekends making phone calls and knocking doors.”

“What I’m most proud of is our membership getting Helen Gym elected,” she added, referring to a local progressive activist who won a seat on the city council last year. “And thanks to the work of Helen and rank-and-file teachers, education has become an issue that has defined recent election cycles. We had well over 1,000 members volunteering for Helen, 2,000 members out in the street for [Democratic Governor] Tom Wolfe on Election Day.”

Terry Moe, a political science professor at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think thank, argues that unions can’t help but be weakened when they lose members.

“It’s not good if you lose members, you are going to lose money and ground troops. But the connection between those things and political power is very unclear,” said Moe. “It could help if teachers unions think of themselves as in crisis, that they have to do something. If they feel like charters are taking over, for example, they can increase the numbers of their members who are activist. I wouldn’t be surprised, if that is what’s happening in cities where teachers see charters encroaching.”

It’s not good if you lose members, you are going to lose money and ground troops… It could help if teachers unions think of themselves as in crisis, that they have to do something.

Moe says that from a national perspective, it’s important to remember that charter schools remain relatively rare.

“Nationwide charter schools enroll just 6 percent of students,” said Moe. “Okay, yeah, Obama was a supporter of charter schools, but it’s not like they’ve vastly expanded during his term, but in a small number of cities, the local unions there have taken a hit. Has this happened in New York City? No. New Orleans is an outlier, but in Washington, D.C., charter schools enroll half the kids and the union is very weak. The same dynamics are at play in Dayton, in Philadelphia. There are probably, eight or nine cities where charter schools have made a big factor.”

“I think that unions generally are so on her side and I think that’s going to lead to grassroots efforts on her behalf,” said Dine. “That said, there’s been a gulf between leadership endorsements and rank-and-file sentiment… That’s especially the case in trade and manufacturing. And while teachers’ jobs can’t be exported, teachers have other issues with her, her relationship to special interests and her Wall Street ties.”

Amy Roat, a teacher in Philadelphia and a leader in an activist caucus of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said she’s reluctantly backing Clinton 

“We are uninspired,” said Roat. “We endorsed Hillary Clinton before she went to the conference and said how great charters are. I’m going to hold my nose and vote for her…Democrats have let us down. I like our new Mayor [Jim] Kenney, but for him, too, show me the money. We are at a point where we are worried about potable water in schools and mold. We have beautiful parks downtown, but extremely underfunded schools.”

“Democrats could be doing a lot more,” she said.

Elisabeth Heurtefeu is a former principal from Chicago who also taught in France. She traveled to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this week to protest Clinton and support the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein.

“I think she’s going to be like Obama,” Heurtefeu said of Clinton. “I voted for him, who I’ve been disappointed with since he appointed Arne Duncan, who charterized Chicago public schools.” 

“Trump and Hilary are for privatization and school choice,” she added. “I wanted kids who could be critical thinkers. They just want kids who can work at Walmart and the other big corporations that give them money.”

Linardopoulos, of the PFT, thinks former Gov. Corbett, who authorized deep cuts to education, is the primary culprit behind the Philadelphia union’s membership losses, not President Obama, but she’s hoping that a Clinton administration will take education policy in a different direction. Moe suspects that Linardopoulos’s instincts are right.

“Obama is a union supporter, and Hillary Clinton is a union supporter, but when it comes to education Obama is a reformer and Clinton is not,” said Moe. “Clinton is a teachers union candidate and Obama never was; he supported reforms the unions didn’t like, and Clinton won’t. She’s their candidate and she won’t do things they don’t like.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.