The Chicago teachers’ strike, which entered its second week Monday, puts Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s education reform priorities squarely at odds with a base that is critical to the re-election of his former boss, President Barack Obama.
But is Obama’s refusal to force Emanuel to bow to the teachers’ unions a sign that the president puts education reform ahead of politics? The authors of a new book about Obama’s education record think so.
“Especially in the time of a close election where he needs money and manpower, it would seem like the logical thing to do would be to take the side of the teachers unions,” said Michael McShane, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Had [Obama] come out and said, ‘I’m taking the side of the unions here; Rahm, you need to back off,’ you would think that would get him a lot of money and a much more fervent base, but he hasn’t done that.”
McShane is co-author of “President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and the Political,” which was released earlier this month. He and co-author Robert Maranto argue that Obama’s inner-city background and personal history with public school teachers led him to push — however gently — for more accountability and choice in education.
“The conclusion we draw in the book, by going through some of his early writings, is that [Obama] came of age in the inner city of Chicago as a community organizer there,” said McShane. “He actually writes in pretty great detail about the deplorable condition of the Chicago public schools, and he even remarks about how frequently the union would go on strike.”
Despite being a liberal Democrat, Obama has supported policies such as Race to the Top, which will undermine teachers’ unions in the long run, said McShane.
“The Race to the Top initiative awarded points to states that had removed their charter cap and had more favorable environments for charter schools,” he said. “Overtime, these reforms that he is pushing to enact will erode the power of teachers unions.”
Chicago may be ground zero for that struggle. So far, Emanuel has refused to surrender to the teachers on several key pieces of his reform plans.
The union most stridently opposes tying teachers’ performance evaluations to their students standardized test scores, and will not end the strike until an acceptable agreement is reached on the issue. But Emanuel planned to file an injunction against the teachers for continuing the strike on such grounds, the Chicago Tribune reports.
The White House would not confirm whether Obama had spoken with Emanuel about the strike, but a spokesperson told reporters Friday that the president wanted both sides to come together and resolve the problem.
“I think what’s important here is for all the parties to come together, work out a resolution, and make sure the children of Chicago are back in school getting educations,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in a press conference.
By declining to support the strike — and score easy points with his union base — Obama demonstrated that he is more serious about education reform than other Democrats, said McShane.
“Had Hillary Clinton won, not Barack Obama, I would highly doubt that there would be any such thing as Race To The Top,” said McShane. “There would probably be a much stronger push against standardized testing.”
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