With the Democrats in Denver

Monday, August 25, 2008

Today, washingtonpost.com launches PostPartisan, a blog of Post columnists and editorial writers. Throughout the conventions, Post writers will offer analysis and insights into what's happening on the stage and behind the scenes.

The photo ops and sound bites beginning tonight will all be designed to show Democratic unity -- Tim Kaine thinks Joe Biden was a great VP choice, Hillary Clinton thinks Barack Obama is the tops and so forth. But a pre-convention event at the Denver Art Museum yesterday afternoon showed that at least on one big issue -- education -- it's not all one happy family.

Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, his Newark counterpart Cory Booker, the Rev. Al Sharpton, New York City superintendent Joel Klein and others gathered to push for merit pay for teachers and other accountability measures for urban schools. The biggest obstacle, they all agreed, is "special interests," by which for the most part they mean teachers unions -- whose members will make up about a tenth of convention delegates, according to National Education Association executive director John Wilson.

Sharpton described the terrible schools open to many poor black children as the biggest civil rights issue of the 21st century. "If our parents could stand up to biting dogs in Alabama, we can stand up to special interests in America's cities," he said.

Fenty said he supports Obama and his message of change -- "and change is most important in education." He offered ongoing teacher contract talks in the District as "a real life example." Chancellor Michelle Rhee's proposed contract includes merit pay for teachers who achieve results. But the American Federation of Teachers, "which I don't think does anything for the District of Columbia," is weighing in against the contract. Why? "The only thing I can figure out is, the people who are elected [as union officials] want to keep their jobs."

The NEA's Wilson, in the audience, told me he found the references to special interests, and the exclusion of unions from the conference, "disrespectful to teachers, and naive . . . . You're not going to change the current system until you bring in teachers and their collective voice."

Indeed, both big teachers unions insist they favor transformation and reform. But any time the talk goes to pay for performance or other ways to attract the best teachers to the worst schools, they change the subject to the problems with parents, or say the need for change is so big that we shouldn't get bogged down with little tactical things like the right to get rid of teachers who don't perform. There was a lot of hope expressed in the auditorium yesterday that Obama would stand up to the unions -- and for children who are being deprived a decent chance in life.

So far, Obama hasn't done much more than nibble at that one.

Fred Hiatt


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