Biden to Face Teachers Union After Toxic Relationship During the Obama Years

Some attribute recent labor unrest in the education sector directly to reforms instituted while Biden was vice president during the Obama administration.

By Lauren Camera, Education Reporter?May 28, 2019
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By Lauren Camera, Education Reporter?May 28, 2019, at 12:55 p.m.

Biden Faces Skeptical Teachers Union

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden during a campaign rally at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia, Saturday, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden during a campaign rally, May 18, 2019, at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia.(Matt Rourke/AP)

Former vice president and 2020 contender Joe Biden is slated to rally with teachers in Houston on Tuesday alongside his wife, Jill Biden, a former high school and community college teacher, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

The event is part of the teachers union's presidential endorsement vetting process, which requires candidates to come face to face with its members and take questions in order to win the backing of the powerful 1.7-million member group.

Biden has long enjoyed the support of labor groups, leaning on his Scranton, Pennsylvania, roots to make the plight of the working class a pillar of his political career. He kicked off his presidential campaign last month at a union hall in Pittsburgh, and the International Association of Fire Fighters has already endorsed him.

But that goodwill does not automatically spill over to the teachers unions, which had a strained and complicated – if not altogether toxic – relationship with the Obama administration. At various points throughout the Obama-Biden tenure, the AFT and the 3.2 million member National Education Association went so far as to call for the resignation of then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Earlier this year, Weingarten linked the current pushback by teachers in which hundreds of thousands have been pacing the picket lines, rallying, sitting in and walking out over low pay, crowded classrooms, lack of investment in education and the creep of charter schools, to many of the policies that spread during the Obama administration.

"I was not a big fan or Arne Duncan," she said. "I thought that Arne was just wrong on a lot of issues."

Duncan oversaw, among other things, the competitive education grant, Race to the Top, which doled out billions of dollars to states that committed to sweeping education changes, including tougher academic standards, new state tests, teacher evaluation and compensation systems based in part on student performance, more charter schools and other things.

At the time, states were clamoring for relief from the punitive parts of No Child Left Behind, the outdated federal K-12 law that was slated to withhold federal dollars from states where students weren't hitting certain academic benchmarks. Race to the Top, which was part of the administration's post-Great Recession economic stimulus plan, and later formal relief in the form of waivers was a shrewd way of giving states what they wanted – freedom from the outdated law – in exchange for their commitment to the administration's education policy preferences.

When Obama and Biden entered the White House in 2008, for example, roughly 1.4 million students were enrolled in 4,600 charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. By the end of the administration, more than 3 million students were enrolled in 7,000 charter schools.

"I wasn't a big fan of this top-down, test-based, fear people into submission," she said. "It would be better if we could have the resources and support, and that is what teachers are telling the public now through these strikes."

It's unclear whether Biden will defend the Obama administration's education legacy or use Tuesday's town hall to offer an olive branch and paint a new vision for what a Biden administration would mean for public education and teachers – as so many of the 2020 candidates have been rushing to do since both unions started their endorsement vetting process.

So far, Biden has been mum on the issue of education, aside from tweeting his support for teachers striking. His campaign website focuses on the bookends to K-12, namely, increasing access to pre-kindergarten and creating more certificate programs and on-the-job training opportunities.

Weingarten, for her part, has pledged to hear out each candidate but says that the question for her union's educator members is ultimately: Do you stand with public school teachers at a time when they're walking the picket lines to rebuke the last decade of education reforms?

"I think records really matter and what people have done in the past is important," she said.

Lauren Camera, Education Reporter

Lauren Camera is an education reporter at U.S. News & World Report. She’s covered education ...? Read more

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