Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says… (Ben Gabbe / Getty Images )
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Teachers unions have been the Democratic Party's foot soldiers for more than half a century, providing not only generous financial backing but an army of volunteers in return for support of their entrenched power in the nation's public schools.
But this relationship is fraying, and the deterioration was evident Monday as Democrats gathered here for their national convention.
A handful of teachers and parents, carrying large inflated pencils, picketed a screening of "Won't Back Down," a movie to be released this month starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as mothers, one a teacher, who try to take over a failing inner-city school.
The plot is ripped from the headlines: California has the first "parent trigger" law in the nation, which allows parents to petition for sweeping changes to improve low-performing schools. The first parent trigger attempts have occurred in Compton and Adelanto; the former failed, and the latter faces numerous obstacles.
Parent triggers, along with other emerging efforts, have some Democrats questioning their party's longtime support of guarantees that public school districts have made to teachers for decades. Those efforts also include merit pay, charter schools, weakening the tenure system and evaluating teachers partly based on their students' performance on standardized tests.
"There is no longer sort of this assumed alliance between the Democratic Party and the teachers unions," Michelle Rhee, a leader in the movement, said in an interview. Rhee, a Democrat who is a target of the unions' ire, discussed the issues on a panel after the film screening here and one at the Republican National Convention last week.
"There are now lots of Democrats who are saying, 'You know what, we're for teachers and teachers unions, we support the concept of collective bargaining, but there are clearly some things that need to change, and we are willing to stand up and talk about those challenges,'" she said.
The film received scant attention at the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., but was scrutinized here because of the divide among Democrats about its content.
"We support authentic school improvement and reform," said Carol Sawyer, a protester from Mecklenburg (N.C.) Area Coming Together for Schools, or ACTS, who wore a "Closing Schools Doesn't Work" T-shirt as she handed out fliers to movie attendees.
Sawyer, a grant writer and a mother, represents the traditional bloc of Democrats and union members who oppose the film's message and believe the education overhaul movement and the movie are simply part of a conservative effort to demonize teachers unions and labor in general.
"No self-respecting Democrat should be caught dead at this screening," an opponent of the movement lamented in a blog post.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has harshly criticized the film, saying it is premised on falsehoods and stereotypes to demagogue teachers. Writing in the Washington Post, she said it contained "the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen."
She said parent-trigger laws actually gave power to for-profit organizations, not parents and teachers, and noted that conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz is among the movie's backers.
"This movie could have been a great opportunity to bring parents and teachers together," she wrote. Instead, it "is divisive and demoralizes millions of great teachers."
The screening was not an official convention event, but required approval from the highest levels of the White House and the Democratic Party, according to the Huffington Post. In a measure of blessing, convention chairman and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stopped by to speak briefly to the attendees.
Voters have long said that education is a priority issue and is typically used to woo moderates and women. But it rarely surfaces in presidential campaigns, and this year, with the nation's economic woes taking center stage, it has received scant attention.
Mitt Romney has brought up offering greater school choice as part of his five-part plan to help the middle class.
"We're going to make sure our workers have the skills they need to succeed, and that our kids have the skills they need to succeed in the coming century, because right now our schools in far too many places in America aren't doing the job they need to do," he said Saturday during a rally in Cincinnati.
"I want to make sure we put our kids and the teachers first, and the teachers union behind," he said, part of an effort to paint Obama as a tool of labor.
Obama enjoys great support from teachers unions, and there are no signs that they will desert him en masse in this election. But he has angered them, notably with his "Race to the Top" competition that rewarded states financially for making moves unpopular with labor, such as increasing access for charter schools and encouraging states to use standardized testing as one way to measure teacher effectiveness.
This has prompted a vociferous response at times. When a leader of the overhaul movement was hired to be Obama's spokeswoman for California, the California Federation of Teachers told state Democratic officials that if she was not fired, the union might not "participate" in Obama's reelection effort. The spokeswoman remains on the Obama team.
Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report from Cincinnati.