CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The overwhelming power of teachers unions, Democrats' most loyal foot soldiers for decades, has sparked tensions within the party as some question whether the labor groups have made public school reform — a key policy goal of President Obama — more difficult.
The sheer political muscle of the National Education Association — the nation's largest union with more than 3 million members — and the American Federation of Teachers has, over time, led the party to avoid substantive and controversial reform ideas that may inflame organized labor, education activists within the party contend.
"The Democratic Party, quite bluntly, needs teachers unions to be effective," said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. "We can count on teachers unions to send busloads of teachers into swing states at the right times. The relationship between the party and the unions is very long-standing. As a result of all the work the teachers unions were doing for the Democratic Party, party leaders threw their hands up on education."
The rift was on display at the party's otherwise unified convention on Monday and centered on an upcoming film seen by some labor leaders as anti-union. "Won't Back Down" has been heralded by education reform advocates in the party, including Mr. Williams, for shining a light on the need for parents to challenge school bureaucracies. It hits theaters later this month but has been shown to select audiences at both party conventions.
In the movie, two women use a fictional version of the controversial "parent trigger" laws to radically overhaul their failing local schools. Such measures exist in four states and are being considered in others.
Led by AFT President Randi Weingarten, labor officials have ripped the movie for purportedly painting teachers' unions as part of the status quo, contributors to those failing systems and a part of the problem with American education today.
"Using the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen ... the film affixes blame on the wrong culprit: America's teachers unions," she said in a recent statement.
Critics of the film attempted to organize a protest of Monday's screening, but the effort fizzled when only a half-dozen demonstrators showed up.
Inside the downtown Charlotte theater, Mr. Williams and other education reform leaders — including former D.C. schools chief Michelle A. Rhee — made clear that they aren't anti-union, but that they want to see average teachers and parents given their own pulpits to talk about what needs to change.
"This debate is not going to move forward until rank-and-file teachers who are in the classroom every day start to speak up," said Ms. Rhee, now the CEO of StudentsFirst, a pro-reform organization. "Because right now, there's a monolithic teacher voice in this country and it comes from union leadership."
Democrats are making it clear that they don't favor a significantly scaled-back federal role in education as Republicans do. Most are also doubling down on support for teachers' rights to collectively bargain for pay and benefits, a stance that has sparked nasty political battles in several states, including Wisconsin and Ohio.
But there is growing movement within the party aimed at changing the balance of power.
"We need to stand for something different within the Democratic Party. The status quo is not a progressive position," said Ben Austin, executive director of the reform group Parent Revolution and veteran of five Democratic presidential campaigns.
"There is a group of voters, a growing group of voters, who are ideologically liberal but who do not believe their [tax] money is going to serve children," Mr. Austin said. "They think it's stuck in a big bureaucratic black hole and getting wasted. Those voters aren't wrong. We need to be modern, 21st-century progressives who stand for big government, but a big government that is accountable."
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