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Chicago Teachers Strike Could Impact Obama If Not Settled Soon

By Chuck Sudo in News on Sep 12, 2012 9:00PM

President Barack Obama meets with Latino leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Feb. 11, 2011. Flanking the President are Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The Chicago teachers strike is in its third day and the White House has been silent on the issue, save for press secretary Jay Carney’s one-minute statement Monday.

As we wrote Monday, President Obama is in a tight predicament here. He can’t come out in support of Mayor Rahm Emanuel without alienating teachers unions across the country on which his campaign relies to round up support for his re-election. Yet showing solidarity with the teachers would undercut Emanuel, who gave an energetic hard sell at last week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC, listing the reasons why Obama should be re-elected.

Compounding matters for Obama is his support for the policies and work of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO whose work he’s touted as an example of how to invigorate public school education nationwide.

Duncan weighed in on the strike Tuesday.

"I hope that the parties will come together to settle this quickly and get our kids back in the classroom," Duncan said in a written statement. "I’m confident that both sides have the best interests of the students at heart, and that they can collaborate at the bargaining table -- as teachers and school districts have done all over the country -- to reach a solution that puts kids first."

Duncan has held up Chicago—where the mayor controls the school district—as a model for other cities to emulate. While his statement was intentionally vague, it stands to reason that privately Duncan sides with Emanuel in this labor dispute. (There’s no love lost between Duncan and the Chicago Teachers Union as many of the issues at the heart of the strike occurred during Duncan’s watch.)

The teacher evaluations have fast become a talking point on both sides in the dispute and it’s not unique to Chicago. The Education Commission of the States says 30 states, eager to qualify for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grants, require teacher evaluations weighted toward standardized testing. Student performances on standardized tests account for more than half of a teacher’s evaluation in 13 states and the District of Columbia.

But more educators at the college level and watchdog groups warn against evaluations of teachers weighted toward test scores. Members of the Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (CReATE) recently signed an open letter addressed to Emanuel, current CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard and the Chicago School Board asking that they slowly implement the new teacher evaluation system, claiming that CPS isn’t ready to properly implement it as it’s currently configured and because “student test scores have not been found to be a strong predictor of the quality of teaching as measured by other measurements or approaches.”
Even David Magill, director of the private University of Chicago Lab School where Emanuel sends his children, opposes teacher evaluations weighted toward standardized testing. This is what Magill posted on the school’s website in an open letter to then-CPS CEO Duncan in 2009.

“You know first hand that schools cut “frills” in an attempt to maintain the basics. It’s who defines that term and how cuts are applied that too often become a very bad solution to the underlying problem of cost. Physical education, world languages, libraries, and the arts are not “frills.” They are an essential piece of a well-rounded education. From the time of the Renaissance, every enlightened citizenry has known of the importance of culture, the arts, and being physically fit. Well roundedness is at the heart of Dewey’s philosophy and, as a young child, you had the good fortune of being heavily exposed to a balanced educational program. It served you well. Be sure that the states do not sacrifice balance with the current generation of children under the guise of raising test scores and lack of funding.”

The subject of where Emanuel’s children attend school has long been a touchy subject with the mayor. In June 2011 he displayed his famous temper to WMAQ-TV’s Mary Ann Ahern when she persisted in broaching the subject.

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While the Obama administration has been quiet on the strike, the GOP has both voiced support of the school districts position and called the strike an insidious Democratic plot. Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney released a statement Monday supporting Emanuel.

“I am disappointed by the decision of the Chicago Teachers Union to turn its back on not only a city negotiating in good faith but also the hundreds of thousands of children relying on the city’s public schools to provide them a safe place to receive a strong education. Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet. President Obama has chosen his side in this fight, sending his Vice President last year to assure the nation’s largest teachers union that ‘you should have no doubt about my affection for you and the President’s commitment to you.’ I choose to side with the parents and students depending on public schools to give them the skills to succeed, and my plan for education reform will do exactly that.”

GOP Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan also expressed his support for Emanuel in the strike.

"Mayor Emanuel is right today in saying that this teacher's union strike is unnecessary and wrong," Ryan said in Portland, Ore., according to a pool report transcript. "We know that Rahm is not going to support our campaign, but on this issue and this day we stand with Mayor Rahm Emanuel."

Maybe the Romney/Ryan ticket should have waited until Rush Limbaugh weighed in before they made their statements. Limbaugh went so far as to call the strike a plot by Democrats to get teachers to vote for Obama.

"Last week I asked a stupid question, and it took me a couple of hours on Friday to figure it out. I've been hoping I wouldn't forget it all weekend. And here we are, and I remember what it was. The stupid question I asked was: 'Why are the teachers in Chicago going on strike?' The answer is very simple: So Obama can solve it as a campaign issue. That's why they're on strike. It won't be long before we hear Moochelle say that he's up late at night on the campaign trail practically crying, reading letters from students in Chicago upset they can't go to school."

How getting striking teachers to vote for a President who supports many of the policies that led to the strike would be a daunting task, indeed. But no one ever accused Limbaugh of thinking his plots through.

However, there is a fear that the strike could eventually affect Obama’s re-election chances the longer it lasts. It would take an act of God for Obama to lose Illinois in November, but he still needs union support in swing states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio where he and Romney are trading places in polls on a constant basis.