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Chicago Teacher’s Strike Raises Challenges For Obama Campaign

by Ethan Corey | Amherst College

F Posted in: Election 2012, News and Politics P Posted on: September 14, 2012

This week’s strike by the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) presented the Obama campaign with unique challenges as teachers took to the streets to protest what they considered unfair terms for their contract renewal with the school system.

Although the union was optimistic a tentative deal would be reached Friday afternoon, pending approval from the union’s House of Delegates, the strike forced the Obama campaign into the position of courting labor support while still advocating school reform measures such as the expansion of charter schools that the Chicago Teacher’s Union and the National Education Association, the national teacher’s union, both opposed.

The union announced the strike after negotiations broke down with Chicago Public School (CPS) officials over hiring practices at charter schools and the role standardized test scores would play in annual teacher evaluations. Mayor Rahm Emanuel had announced plans to close down hundreds of underperforming or sparsely attended schools on Chicago’s South and West Sides and open up charter schools in their place, displacing thousands of teachers in the process. The teacher’s union, which opposes school privatization, had demanded that the school system rehire teachers laid off from closed-down schools at the new schools before any non-union teachers were rehired, but school officials refused to discuss rehiring until after the union contract was renewed.

In June 2011, the Illinois State Legislature passed a law requiring 20 to 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on standardized test scores. Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard wanted 40 percent of the evaluation to come from test scores, but the union was adamant that the percentage stay at a minimum. In addition, the union requested protective measures to prevent tenured teachers from losing their jobs in the case of a negative evaluation and restrictions on the school district’s ability to eliminate raises in the case of economic hardship.

On Thursday, CTU President Karen Lewis said on a scale of 1-10, “I’m a 9” on a deal being reached that day. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief education officer for Chicago Public Schools, also expressed confidence that a deal would be finalized that day. A meeting of the 700-member CTU House of Delegates has been scheduled for 2 p.m. CT Friday to consider ending the strike, pending approval of the new contract by the union’s full membership.

Republicans attacked the Obama campaign for refusing to comment on the ongoing strike, accusing the president of abandoning schoolchildren and tacitly siding with teachers in the labor dispute. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said Obama “has sent a clear message that the hundreds of thousands of children who are suffering because of this strike take a backseat to his political allies.”

Both Republican nominee Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan have criticized Obama for what they see as implied support for the union’s goals. In a statement, Romney said Obama “has chosen his side in this fight,” and Ryan raised questions about Obama’s loyalties on the strike.

“We stand with the children and we stand with the families and the parents of Chicago because education reform, that’s a bipartisan issue. This does not have to divide the two parties. And so, we were going to ask, where does President Obama stand? Does he stand with his former Chief of Staff Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with the children and the parents, or does he stand with the union?” Ryan said.

Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt called the strike a “local dispute” and criticized Republicans for using the strike as a campaign issue. Nevertheless, Obama’s silence on the strike reveals a deep tension between Obama’s position on educational reform and his efforts to maintain labor support for his presidency.

Obama has strongly supported efforts to reform the public school system that are deeply unpopular with teachers, such as merit pay and charter schools. In May, Obama called charter schools “incubators of innovation” and called for increased investment in non-public and forms of education. However, the NEA endorsed Obama’s re-election bid very early on but has expressed disagreement with the president on merit pay, test-based evaluation and competitive grant programs like Race to the Top, a major component of Obama’s educational policy during his first term.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters in a press conference Monday afternoon, “His principal concern is for the students and families who are affected by the situation. And we hope that both sides are able to come together to settle this quickly and in the best interest of Chicago’s students.”

Ethan Corey Ethan Corey Ethan is a sophomore at Amherst College, where he is majoring in Spanish and History. Ethan writes for the Amherst Student and in his spare time enjoys hiking, sailing and music.

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