Huffpost Education
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

John Thompson Headshot

Obama Allies Erred in Provoking the Chicago Teachers Strike

Posted: Updated:

Education Week's Steve Sawchuk explained that the Obama education policy is a "Nixon to China" phenomenon. Of course it is! It certainly isn't an education policy! It is a political gamble designed to beat up on two of the Democrats' most loyal constituencies, teachers and families with children in urban schools, to show the "Billionaires Boys Club" that the administration could be tough on its friends.

We have known since last year what the real issue is. Jonah Edelman was videotaped boasting to his corporate sponsors about how he outsmarted the teachers and their union. As Diane Ravitch recalled, Edelman regaled the nation's elite at Aspen about "how he had shaped legislation not only to cut back teachers' job protections but to prevent the Chicago union from ever striking." His boasts were doubly disturbing, Ravitch noted, because if such an ambush could work in Chicago, their anti-teacher, anti-union tactics could work anywhere. Ravitch explained:

Armed with millions of dollars supplied by wealthy financiers, he hired the top lobbyists in Illinois and won favor with the top politicians. He shaped legislation to use test scores for evaluating teachers, to strip due process rights from teachers, and to assure that teachers lost whatever job protections they had. In his clever and quiet campaign behind the scenes, he even managed to split the state teachers' unions

Test-driven education reform has largely failed. We've known that for a long time. The jury has been out, however, on the "Sister Souljah" tactic of scapegoating teachers. I hope that this mercenary political ploy doesn't blow up in the Obama administration's face on the eve of the election. It could increase Republican turnout in swing states while depressing Democratic voters.

Conservative Mike Petrilli noted that the key electoral college issue is how the Chicago strike will play in Wisconsin and Ohio. News coverage, he speculated, will largely be anti-teacher. After all, educators' economic suffering has not been as bad as that of most workers. In those two polarized states, the strike could mobilize anti-union voters.

Petrilli didn't mention the other side of the coin. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's "reforms" opened the door to Scott Walker's and John Kasich's attacks on collective bargaining. Worse, Duncan and President Obama mostly stayed silent as workers fought back in Wisconsin and Ohio. Had the administration joined with workers, perhaps the Wisconsin recall election would have been won. Regardless, if the administration remains silent in Chicago, fed-up teachers could stay home in droves. That would be a case of chopping our noses to spite our faces, but it would be understandable if teachers allowed our outrage to rule.

The strike, I must emphasize, is not simply a case of striking back in anger. As Stephanie Simon and James Kelleher of Reuters explained, it is a counterattack against education "reform." As a union organizer explained, "this is a fight for the soul of public education." Simon and Kelleher reported that many teachers "see the new policies (promoted by Chicago and the Obama administration) as a brazen attempt to shift public resources into private hands, to break the power of teachers unions, and to reduce the teaching profession to test preparation."

The reporters then described the meager gains produced by test-driven school "reform," thus raising the question of why a Democrat would inflict so much pain on loyal constituencies, in support of risky policies with so little potential of helping schools. Simon and Kelleher cited Mark Naison, a professor of African-American history at Fordham, who argued, "This is ground zero of resistance to education reform."

Ideally, teachers could have "taken one for the team." In a rational world, maybe we could have kept our outrage bottled up until after the election. Perhaps President Obama's advisers gambled that national union leaders could keep the rank-in-file from acting on their anguish. But the politicos and the "reformers" are ignoring the most important half of the equation. Yes, teachers are tired of the humiliations that are dumped on us as a predictable response by management to the Duncan administration's "innovations." Even more painful, however, is witnessing the harm done to our students, who are condemned to nonstop test prep.

President Obama is busy. There is no possible way that he could grasp the damage being done to poor children of color by the way that his policies are being implemented. But if we can't get his attention at a time like this, what hope do we have for persuading him to take the time to see what is actually happening in urban schools?