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Education Event Tags Unions

The Democratic National Convention is perhaps the last place you’d expect to hear anti-union rhetoric by some of the party’s notable politicians. Typically when Democrats criticize the “special interests” for wielding too much power, they’re talking about big business, not unions.

But a group of education reformers, including Obama-Biden supporter D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, turned a panel discussion Sunday on schools largely into an attack on teachers’ unions.

“This is a tough political battle,” said panelist Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J., and also an Obama supporter. He called unions such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers “phenomenally powerful interests” that have tried to sink his campaigns because of his support for charter schools and other reforms.

The session, organized by several education lobbying groups including Democrats for Education Reform and Ed in ’08, was held at the Denver Art Museum on the eve of the convention. The message from all the participants was to encourage Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) to put education at the top of his administration’s agenda. The groups want Obama to support their efforts to expand charter schools, pay teachers based on their performance and expand the length of school days.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) sat in the front row of the audience.

“The Democratic Party used to be the party of progress,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.

Former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, chairman of Ed in ’08, said that while he supports unions generally, when it comes to education policy, “the adult agenda wins too often in our present situation.” Officials with the National Education Association worked the room afterward to counter the panelists’ anti-union message. The NEA’s John Wilson said the discussion was not productive.

“If you want to have transformation, you cannot exclude teachers and their collective voice,” he said in an interview after the panel. The speakers, he added, are “all into tactics. They need a lot of executive coaching as far as I’m concerned.”

Democrats weren’t the only ones spotted at the event. Quinn Gillespie & Associates lobbyist Marc Lampkin, a former Bush-Cheney campaign aide, helped put on the event. He is also executive director of Ed in ’08.

“I’m a nonpartisan education reform advocate this week,” he said.

In a week when most events revolve around food and drink, participants headed to the lobby of the museum for little plates of cheese, fruit, wild mushroom wontons and plenty of wine. It wasn’t all policy after all.

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