ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The nation's two largest teachers unions are holding their annual conventions this week and they have some pretty harsh things to say about the Obama administration's education agenda. Some teachers are even calling for Education Secretary Arne Duncan to resign.
The unions support many of the administration's proposals, but as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, their relationship with the administration has begun to sour.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: If Education Secretary Arne Duncan is worried about the angry rhetoric coming from the presidents of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, he certainly won't admit it.
Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Education Department): I just have huge respect for them as individuals. I know they have very, very challenging jobs, but I think they are the right leaders at the right time.
SANCHEZ: The feeling is not mutual among NEA delegates meeting in New Orleans. Earlier this week, they called for Duncan's resignation and cast a vote of no confidence in the administration's school reform agenda. For good reason, says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. Instead of overhauling the politically unpopular No Child Left Behind law, Van Roekel says the Obama administration has not done enough to rescind the law's worst features.
Mr. DENNIS VAN ROEKEL (President, NEA): The narrowing of the curriculum, the overemphasis on tests, the labeling and the punishment of districts is not working and the students are losing.
SANCHEZ: So here's how the administration can get back on the unions' good side, says Van Roekel: Reward schools for raising kids' academic performance, no matter how small; stop relying on tests as a single measure of students' academic growth; and absolutely stop supporting the use of test scores to evaluate teachers or decide how much they should be paid.
Mr. VAN ROEKEL: I think that decision is best made at the local level, not mandated and micromanaged from the federal level.
SANCHEZ: If the administration does not rethink its policy, says Van Roekel, it'll find itself on a collision course with teachers and their unions, which is not entirely a bad thing, says Margaret Spellings, former secretary of education in the Bush administration.
Ms. MARGARET SPELLINGS (Former Education Secretary, Bush Administration): I do think there are some political advantages in characterizing the unions as about the status quo. And I would commend the president and the secretary for some of the stances that they've taken are very courageous for a Democrat to take, and I would not characterize them as anti-teacher. I would characterize them as pro-student.
SANCHEZ: That's inside-the-beltway politics, says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The real question is: Can this administration work with teachers to push fair and meaningful reforms?
Ms. RANDI WEINGARTEN (President, American Federation of Teachers): You can't do it without listening to the voices of teachers - that's part of why you hear the anger in my voice - because to demonize and scapegoat them or their unions will end up a failed policy.
SANCHEZ: Some say this growing rift, however, could further weaken teachers unions more than it does President Obama.
Mr. JOE WILLIAMS (Executive Director, Democrats for Education Reform): The political power of teachers unions is vastly overrated right now.
SANCHEZ: That's Joe Williams, head of Democrats for Education Reform. He says the AFT and NEA are angry because the president hasn't pandered to teachers unions.
Mr. WILLIAMS: You can look back at the president as a candidate speaking before the unions making it clear about his support for charter schools, his support for things like performance pay. It was not a closeted agenda. For people to act right now like they feel betrayed by this president only suggests they were not paying attention when he was speaking.
SANCHEZ: Williams and others agree: In the face of growing union opposition, the Obama administration will have to look to business leaders and civil rights groups to anchor a new political coalition to get things done.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.