According to House of Cards, Netflix' dynamite new political drama, teachers unions exercise more influence over K-12 policy than Republicans. Democrats own the issue, and the direction of K-12 in America depends on a struggle between pro and anti union elements within the Democratic party.
Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood (D-SC), the series' protagonist and the majority whip in Congress. Frank's effort to pass a radical ed reform bill forms the main plot arc of the series' first half. This task falls to Frank because the newly-elected President (also a D) wants to make ed reform the keystone achievement of his first 100 days. The bill begins as a "far left of center" tax-and-spend approach to K-12 reform, but strengthens over time, as Frank and the President resolve to push for performance standards, charter schools and tough collective bargaining restrictions. Their sole, but formidable, obstacle is the teachers unions.
What's union influence? Membership and lobbying totals tell us a lot, but spending does not always determine electoral outcomes. House of Cards defines union influence as a seat at the table, in this case the head of the table. The battle over what would easily be the most significant K-12 bill ever passed by Congress is one fought inside the Democratic party, and reaches its dramatic climax in single combat between Frank and the chief lobbyist for the NEA and AFT. That's doesn't mean the unions get what they want, but being more important than the minority party is a not uninfluential place to be in.
For Republicans are irrelevant. Frank and the other Democrats take them for granted on the anti-union stuff, and they make no other substantive contribution. To be sure, House of Cards is generally uninterested in Republicans since they're the minority party in a show about a whip. (House of Cards depicts DC as a sick place, but partisanship is not one of its afflictions. Disloyalty is a bigger one.) It's a tv show and it's prone to overstatement. On the other hand, doesn't the point hit home? Recently, both Andy Smarick and Chester Finn have made similar arguments about Republicans' conspicuous absence in K-12 debates, and why it's bad for the party and nation that Democrats own this issue. A largely unappreciated political failure of the Bush administration.