President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan rolled out a new teacher initiative Monday, just days after the country’s largest teachers union voted in favor of a motion calling on Mr. Duncan to resign.
While the powerful National Education Association agrees on the broad goals of Monday’s announcement — centered on programs to ensure low-income and urban districts still have quality teachers — a majority of its delegates object to the administration’s larger education policy, which they deem to have been a failure.
Teachers unions have been among the president’s strongest supporters, and passionately supported both of Mr. Obama’s White House bids. But last week’s vote on Mr. Duncan is the clearest sign yet of divisions between the two sides, and took some of the shine off of the new program unveiled Monday.
For Mr. Obama, it’s the latest example of a troubling trend — once staunch supporters becoming increasingly hostile.
The dynamic also is playing out in the immigration debate, with some groups mostly aligned with the administration’s broader policies chastising the president for his willingness to deport young illegal immigrant children who flock to the U.S. from Mexico, Central America and elsewhere.
Privacy and transparency advocates, who expected Mr. Obama to be a key ally, also have slammed this administration for shielding information, restricting access to the president, far-reaching federal snooping programs and other issues.
When Mr. Duncan emerged in the White House press briefing room Monday to tout the new teacher initiative, he instead encountered numerous questions about the NEA vote, held at the organization’s annual convention last week.
Despite being pressed on the issue, the education secretary, who once ran the public school system in Mr. Obama’s hometown of Chicago, wouldn’t directly address the union’s action.
“We agree on many issues. We disagree occasionally. I don’t get caught up in union politics,” Mr. Duncan said. “Generally we’ve had a very good working relationship.”
In its vote last week, the NEA specifically cited Mr. Duncan’s adherence to high-stakes testing as a way to improve student performance but also to judge teacher effectiveness.
“The NEA Representative Assembly joins other educators and parents in calling for the resignation of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan for the department’s failed education agenda focused on more high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores, and for continuing to promote policies and decisions that undermine public schools and colleges, the teaching education professionals and education unions,” the motion reads.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan tried to smooth over relations with teachers at the White House on Monday and blunt the negative publicity from the NEA vote.
The two men hosted four teachers from across the country for lunch on the White House grounds, and the president also touted the new initiative aimed at ensuring the most qualified, effective teachers don’t flock to affluent, suburban districts and leave poorer schools with lesser instructors.
“Of particular concern is the fact that typically the least experienced teachers, the ones with the least support, often end up in the poorest schools. So we have a problem in which the kids who need the most skilled teachers are the least likely to get them,” Mr. Obama said. “And the most talented and skilled teachers oftentimes are teaching the kids who are already the best prepared and have the most resources outside of the school in order to succeed.”
The new initiative calls on states to develop comprehensive plans to ensure “teacher equity” across districts. Mr. Duncan said the federal government will provide $4.2 million to help states accomplish that goal.
The Education Department also will begin publishing “equity profiles” to identify areas that states and districts should address, Mr. Duncan said.