Obama Versus's Rahm on Education

Get ready: The Chicago strike is likely to seep into presidential race.

ByBy Elizabeth Hartfield
September 11, 2012, 12:33 PM

Sept. 12, 2012 -- Get ready: the teacher's strike in Chicago has the potential to become a big GOP talking point on the campaign trail if it continues to drag on. Why? The obvious reason is the close connection Obama has with Chicago. The windy city is where his campaign is headquartered, and the mayor at odds with the teachers union is Obama's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. But there's another reason as well; the strike highlights a long simmering riff between the Obama administration's policies with regards to education, and one of the Democrats' biggest support groups- the unions.

What Are the Issues in the Chicago Strike?

At the heart of the teacher's strike--the first in Chicago 25 years--are several issues that have become hot-button topics in the world of education in recent years.

First and foremost, there is an argument about a new teachers evaluation system which would make student's standardized test scores a big part of teacher evaluations. Higher test scores for their class equals a better evaluation for the teacher. The Chicago Teachers Union argues that this system is not a good way to measure a teacher's performance.

"This is no way to measure the effectiveness of an educator," the Chicago Teachers Union wrote in a press release on Sunday. "Further there are too many factors beyond our control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control."

Emanuel has argued that the evaluation system was designed by teachers, saying "The evaluation is designed by our teachers, for our teachers, and will be revised by our teachers."

Then, there are the arguments about job security, and benefits. On job security, the teachers union is pushing for a system to re-hire teachers who have previously been laid-off because of school closings when new jobs become available. On salary and benefits--the school district has offered a 16 percent raise over four years. Chicago Teachers' Union president Karen Lewis has said that the CTU and the Chicago Public School's board are "not far apart on compensation"- but there is still a debate over benefits.

The other lingering issue is an argument over a longer school day. Emanuel has been pushing for a longer school day since before he was elected mayor, and several weeks before the strike the union and the Chicago Public Schools reached an agreement to hire upwards of 500 new teachers to accommodate the longer day without making teacher's work for longer hours. However, there is still anger between the two sides about the issue, and how it was handled.

Obama Administration's Education Policy

Although the nation's largest education unions--the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association--have both endorsed Obama, his administration has not always seen eye to eye with the unions in this area.

The most talked-about part of the Obama administration's education policy is the Race to the Top program, a grant program funded by money from the stimulus which rewards states that are reforming their education systems. Grants are awarded based on a series of criteria, including factoring standardized test scores into teacher evaluations.

Obama has also supported the expansion of charter schools, another policy point where he's differed from the teachers unions, as charter schools tend to hire non-union teachers.

The Obama administration has so far stayed silent on the story, but their silence has a political shelf life, and if the strike does continue, at a certain point, Obama will likely have to address the situation. Until then expect his Republican opponents to drop the strike into conversation with some frequency.

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