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President Barack Obama’s re-election on Tuesday—along with Democratic victories in key states—marked a reprieve for teachers unions after a difficult year of political attacks and shrinking membership.

2012 elections
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten urges Cincinnati teachers to knock on doors and phone bank on President Obama’s behalf. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

The defeat of Indiana’s Republican superintendent of public instruction, Tony Bennett, combined with labor-friendly results on a series of ballot initiatives, demonstrates the continuing strength of unions, said Terry Moe, a political scientist at Stanford University and the author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools.

“They’re powerful enough that they can go after their enemies,” Moe said. “That tends to prevent a lot of policymakers from doing anything.”

With a combined membership of 4.5 million educators, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers have long been considered among the best-organized political forces in the country. But this election was marked by a particular sense of urgency, many union officials have told The Hechinger Report over the past few months.

“The 2010 election kind of woke a sleeping giant, if you will, in many of our members,” said NEA political director Karen White.

In the last two years, a majority of states across the nation have passed education laws that unions disagree with, including bills that have reformed tenure and tied student test scores to teacher evaluations. Legislatures have slashed state education budgets and limited unions’ collective bargaining rights.

Bennett—a favorite among self-proclaimed “education reformers”—was defeated by NEA member Glenda Ritz, in part due to a large-scale phone-banking campaign spearheaded by the union. Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., described Bennett’s unexpected loss as the “biggest single development for education” in this election cycle.

“The fact that a basketball-coaching, folksy native son … lost in the Hoosier state was a shocker, and [is] a big setback for would-be reformers,” Hess said.

In Idaho, union members also campaigned hard to overturn three pieces of major education-reform legislation by wide margins. Laws that would have included student test scores in teacher evaluations, introduced a merit pay system and mandated online classes for high-schoolers were all rejected.

“We really believe it was an overreach from the right wing after those 2010 elections,” White said of the laws. “Voters in Idaho believe in fundamental fairness.”

2012 elections
The American Federation of Teachers launched a multi-state bus tour this weekend, spending the first leg of their trip in the important battleground state of Ohio. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

A Maryland ballot initiative to make undocumented immigrants eligible for in-state tuition to public colleges and universities passed, while a bid to remove language from the Florida state constitution banning taxpayer money from going to religious educational institutions failed. Had the initiative passed, it would have opened up the possibility of a statewide system of private-school vouchers, which unions staunchly oppose.

In other places, though, the unions were less successful. In Georgia, for instance, citizens voted to create a state commission to authorize charter schools, which unions have fought against because they tend to hire non-unionized teachers. Initial results indicate that Washington will become the 42nd state in the country to allow charters. And in Ohio, only one of the 10 teacher-candidates running for state legislature won, despite all having had their union’s support.

Many of the Ohio teachers were spurred to run by a 2011 attempt to strip unions of their collective bargaining rights in that state. “The Ohio Education Association is extremely proud of all of our teacher-candidates,” OEA spokesperson Michele Pater said in a statement. “Each one of them ran a highly competitive campaign, laying the groundwork for the future.”

StudentsFirst, an organization founded by former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, also dealt blows to the unions this year. The group was active in helping get some ballot initiatives, like the Georgia charter school item, passed. Of 111 candidates StudentsFirst endorsed across the country, 87 were elected.

“[Tuesday] night was a good night for school reform,” said Tim Melton, legislative director for StudentsFirst.

The group, which aims to serve as a counterweight to the political power of unions, was particularly successful in Missouri. There, 19 of 21 the candidates they endorsed won, including Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder. (Six ran unopposed.) Candidates supported by StudentsFirst won six of eight contests against union-backed opponents in Missouri.

But Stanford’s Moe cautioned against viewing union losses as a sign of weakness. “Other groups are major new participants in the political process that are making unions’ lives more difficult,” he said. “That doesn’t change the fact that the unions are still enormously powerful.”

This story also appeared on on November 8, 2012.

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