Obama Caught Between Schools Reform, Striking Teachers

Obama Caught Between Schools Overhaul, Striking Union Supporters
Chicago public school teachers and their supporters march in front of the Chicago Public Schools headquarters in Chicago, Illinois. Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

A strike by Chicago teachers creates a political hazard for President Barack Obama, as he counts on the support of organized labor while trying to appeal to independent voters who tend to favor some of the education policies central to the conflict.

The walkout, which is keeping more than 350,000 students out of classrooms for a second day today, also draws attention to the continuing debate over public-employee unions and the cost of their benefits to taxpayers. The Chicago school system has a deficit of about $700 million.

The strike puts Obama between the American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed his re-election in February, and his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who as mayor of Chicago oversees the school district. Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan is the former chief executive officer of Chicago’s schools. The president has used federal funds to advocate tying teachers’ evaluations to student performance, measures opposed by the union.

“This is a tough issue for him with, on one side, the labor unions and the other the reform advocates,” Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey, said in an interview. “He didn’t want to be involving this issue in the fall campaign.”

Pay Raise

Chicago teachers say the city’s proposals on evaluations are a major disagreement in their talks, along with cuts to benefits and training. Teachers originally sought a 29 percent raise over two years, while the board proposed 2 percent annual increases under a four-year contract. The district boosted the offer to a 16 percent raise over the four years of the contract and can’t give more, said Board President David Vitale.

Voters have not been kind to public-service unions in the past year. A union-backed recall of Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who led a drive to curtail collective-bargaining rights for teachers and other public employees, was rejected by voters in June. On the same day in California, San Jose and San Diego, passed referendums opposed by organized labor to restructure public-employee pensions.

Romney Comments

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney moved quickly to tie Obama to the strikers.

“I think the president ought to stand up and say that we ought to put the kids first in this country and the teachers’ union goes behind,” Romney said on the nationally syndicated Hugh Hewitt radio show. “ I think we ought to help the kids, help their parents, help the teachers, but the teachers’ union is opposed to many of the reforms in education that we know are critical to the success of our kids.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters yesterday that Obama’s “principal concern is for the students” and their families. He declined to say whether Duncan might get involved.

“We hope that both sides are able to come together to settle this quickly and in the best interests of Chicago’s students,” Carney said.

Negotiations between the 30,000-member union and Chicago Board of Education resumed today. The strike is the third-largest by public-sector workers since 1993, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping records. About 47,000 employees of Los Angeles County went on strike in 2000, while 35,000 New York transit workers walked out in 2005, according to U.S. Labor Department data.

Obama Campaign

Emanuel yesterday put on hold his plan to spearhead fundraising for Democratic political-action committees as he focuses on settling the strike, Thomas Bowen, director of Emanuel’s own political-action committee, said yesterday.

“This feeds into the image of the unions, particularly in the public sector, being greedy, and it undermines their support among the general public,” Randel Johnson, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits, said in an interview.

“It will be fascinating going into the election with Obama seen as being too close to the unions,” Johnson said.

Independent voters generally support teachers, though have reservations with teachers’ unions that provide strong job protections, said Richard Lee Colvin, an independent education consultant and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton.

Illinois Budget

“People think test scores ought to be a part of teachers’ evaluations,” Colvin said in an interview. “It’s clear that people don’t think school teachers are owed a job.”

Benefits for public workers have been blamed for budget woes in Illinois as well as the city. The Chicago teacher’s pension fund had 59.7 percent of the assets needed to meet forecast obligation to retirees, as of June 30, 2011, the the latest annual report.

The Chicago teacher dispute may also reveal disenchantment with Obama among some union members.

“Unions have endorsed President Obama but the rank-and-file teachers across the nation are so frustrated and angry about these education policies, privatization of the education,” John Cusick, a striking fifth-grade teacher and union delegate at Chicago’s William H. Ray Elementary School in Hyde Park, said yesterday.

Election Impact

Cusick, whose school is a block from the private University of Chicago Lab Schools, where Emanuel’s children attend, volunteered and donated to Obama’s prior campaigns, though doesn’t plan to this year. A similar loss of support may hurt Obama in other states with many union members, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Minnesota, he said.

“I sent $2,300 last time, which is a lot of money for a public school teacher, but I believed,” Cusick said. “And on many levels I’m glad. At the same time I haven’t sent a dime this time. And I know that’s true for some of my friends and colleagues.”

Obama’s “Race to the Top” education proposals include grants for states that raise educational standards and linking teacher evaluations to student performance, which is opposed by teachers unions -- including Chicago’s.

The union says as many as one-third of the city’s educators could be fired within two years under policies that unfairly punish teachers by putting too much emphasis on standardized tests. The teachers are also upset at what they consider unfair cuts to pay and benefits, while also chafing at job-training cuts. The schools have no plans to install air-conditioning in schools, where classrooms can reach 98-degrees in warmer months, the teachers also complain.

“We must do things differently in this city if we are to provide our students with the education they so rightly deserve,” Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago union, said in a Sept. 9 statement.

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