When the smoke cleared Wednesday after the 2014 midterms, education reformers quickly claimed victory and pointed to teachers unions as the election's big loser. But the president of a major union -- which spent unprecedented sums this election cycle -- fired back, saying the elections reflect a larger sense of dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party and that losses were not referenda on union-backed candidates or policies.
While union-backed candidates Tom Torlakson (D) and Tom Wolf (D) won their respective races for California state superintendent and Pennsylvania governor, most other candidates with union support were defeated on Tuesday. As detailed in Education Week, Gov. Scott Walker (R) in Wisconsin, Gov. Rick Snyder in Michigan (R) and Gov. Rick Scott (R) all won against union-backed candidates. In North Carolina, State Rep. Thom Tillis (R) defeated Sen. Kay Hagan (D) in the Senate race, and in Colorado, U.S. Rep Cory Gardner (R) took Democratic Sen. Mark Udall’s seat. Both Udall and Hagan were also backed by unions.
These losses came after the two national teachers unions, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, spent more money on state and local races this cycle than ever before.
In a conference call with reporters, a group of democratic education reform leaders -- who tend to favor limits on teacher job protections, increased school choice and more teacher accountability -- claimed victory. Democrats for Education Reform, the group that hosted the conference call, promotes education reform issues within the Democratic Party, although unions also favor Democratic candidates.
“When we look across the country, when reformers were heard, when their constituencies had a voice, there was success,” said Russlynn Ali, the managing director of the education fund at Emerson Collective, an organization that supports entrepreneurs working in education. “When status quo represented educational landscape and education vision, it lost," she added.
“It was a very bad night for Democrats, so in some measure you might expect the unions were unsuccessful just because of the nature of the climate,” Howard Wolfson, a Democratic political strategist and adviser to former New York City Mayor Bloomberg, said on the call. “What strikes me is you now have Democrats who are willing to buck up against the union on this issue; you’ve always had Republicans who could buck up against the unions.”
Headlines from blogs and media outlets corroborated the view that it was a bad election for unions:
But Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told The Huffington Post that she sees the election results differently -- and does not understand how Democratic reformers could possibly claim they were a success.
“The dominant feeling going into the polling booth was frustration, and the Republicans were able to make this referendum on the president,” Weingarten said. “It’s hard for me to understand … what the business types and the testing types of this education debate think they won here.”
“People voted against the president, that’s how I take much of this election,” she said.
Karen White, political director of the NEA, also attributed union losses to "a national mood that was very hard to overcome,” and noted that the union was pleased with the outcome of several education-related ballot initiatives. White White said she thought the election “was more about the national climate than anything,” she stopped short of blaming union backed candidates' losses on dissatisfaction with the party.
Weingarten also highlighted union victories, noting that their candidates won in places like Pennsylvania, where education played a major role in the election.
“That’s a place where education was a No. 1 issue,” she said.