Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Expelled from Politics On Tuesday, the Idaho House approved the most political piece of State Superintendent Tom Luna's "education reform" effort and sent it on to receive a sure signature from Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter. Idahoans who care about schools - and politics - may look back on the vote to strip collective bargaining rights from the state's teachers and make tenure more tenuous for new teachers as a true watershed moment. Like the great Jack Dempsey, knocked out of the ring in a 1923 title fight, the Idaho Education Association's once-powerful role in the state's politics has been knocked for a loop, perhaps never to recover. Dempsey somehow pulled himself back in the ring against Luis Firpo and eventually won his famous fight. The IEA has rarely demonstrated that kind of agility. It seems unfair to kick someone when they're down, but the reality in these events is obvious, just as the politics is raw. The IEA has failed at both politics and policy and when the legislative moment of reckoning arrived in 2011, the state's teachers were vilified, marginalized and defeated badly. This has been a long time coming. Over the last 15 years, as Idaho's politics has shifted dramatically, the IEA has clung to an old and outdated strategy. Rather than try to elect allies to the legislature or cultivate those already there, the teachers have seemed to focus, without success, on top of the ticket races like governor and state superintendent. The folly of the approach was well documented in a good piece of reporting recently by the Idaho Statesman's Dan Popkey. Popkey got the quote of the current legislative session out of former Democratic State Sen. Brandon Durst who complained about IEA's focus on thwarting Luna's re-election bid rather than winning a handful of potentially decisive legislative elections, his included. “They’re my friends, so let me characterize it a little bit more diplomatically," Durst told Popkey. "They blew it. Their decision to put all of their resources, not just financial but also human resources, behind [Luna's] campaign and his campaign alone, really hurt races down the ticket.” But this failure of political strategy goes deeper than misfiring in one election cycle. The IEA has something like 13,000 members in every corner of Idaho. That represents a grassroots organization that most interest groups would kill for, yet the teachers seem not to have been able to really mobilize these local foot soldiers and use them to build broader coalitions. This represent a failure of strategy that ignores a fundamental tenet of politics at every level: organize, organize, organize. At the same time, Idaho's teachers have become a punchline and a punching bag for what's wrong with education. Teachers have become the Idaho equivalent of the old story that everyone hates the U.S. Congress, but most of us still like our own Congressman. Most Idahoans like the teacher who helps educate their kids, they have just come to hate the teachers union. At the risk of blaming the victim, IEA must shoulder a good deal of the blame for letting this damaging perception take root. The teachers, sorry to say, didn't fight back effectively against the ceaseless drumbeat that they are a major part of the problem with education. Which bring us to policy. Whether its fair or not, perception is reality in politics and the perception hangs that teachers have not engaged constructively in the raging debate over why our education system fails to meet almost everyone's expectations. Playing defense all the time is not a political strategy and it has become for the teachers a recipe to become politically marginalized. Successful movements - and interest groups - eventually need to stand for something, educate folks about the wisdom of the position and build broad support. I'm guess that even most of their supporters in the Idaho Legislature really don't understand the IEA's policy agenda, assuming there is one. IEA's leadership justifiably complains about not being at the table when Luna's reform agenda was hatched, but the teachers also had a chance to build their own policy table and haven't. Unfortunately, this is not just an Idaho-based failure, but a broader national failing of professional teacher organizations. Look no farther than Wisconsin or Ohio for proof. At the IEA website, there is a link called "Why Politics?" A click at the link takes you to a short page that explains that the organization is involved in politics because decisions in Idaho and Washington, D.C. effect teachers. Then there is this sentence: "Time and again, over the last century (emphasis added) IEA members have won major victories to both defend and set new standards for public education in Idaho." It's hard to remember in this century when Idaho teachers won a major or even minor victory. It may be a long time - if ever - before that happens again. If it ever happens again, it will be because Idaho's worn down and increasingly hard pressed teachers, and the organization that represents them, adopts a real political strategy that can help them climb back into the ring.