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President Obama and Education Reform

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Rahm Emanuel isn't the only one facing a test in Chicago this week. In reality, the Chicago Teachers Union is fighting back against a slate of reforms advanced by a new generation of Democratic leaders, including President Obama.

In the Race to the Top federal grant competition, the Obama administration rewarded states that promised to adopt more rigorous teacher evaluation systems (like the one Emanuel is pushing in Chicago). It also rewarded states that offered more choice to students and parents through public charter schools. The administration's blueprint for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the most recent iteration of which was No Child Left Behind) seeks to codify many of these reforms into federal law. At most stages of this process, teachers unions have objected.

But these initiatives, and the reformers advancing them, are driving a sea change in education policy in the Democratic Party.

Not to be too political science-y about it, but teachers unions have been the cornerstone in an "iron triangle" for the last several decades. An iron triangle is a reform-resisting structure that insulates an interest group from the usual checks on its desires. The most notable instance of an iron triangle in American history was the Military Industrial Complex, in which defense contractors (an interest group) had sympathetic ears from the House and Senate Armed Services Committee (those that hold the purse strings) and the folks in the Pentagon (the bureaucracy charged with their management). This led to years of unchecked growth and power as defense contractors asked for more money and more favorable treatment, and the other points in the triangle were more than happy to oblige.

Education interest groups, the most powerful of which are teachers unions, have enjoyed a similar advantage in state and local governments. As documented by preeminent Stanford political scientist Terry Moe, the money and manpower that teachers unions have been able to leverage in local elections have allowed them to handpick their bosses. Not to mention that teachers are quite popular. The latest Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll found 71 percent of Americans had confidence in the ability of teachers. So when unions have asked for things in the past -- from raises, to pension bumps, to job protections -- they have generally gotten them. In this case, the power lies in the constituency (the teachers) not the consumers (the students). This is how you end up with a system like Chicago, where the average teacher makes $76,000 per year, but for every five students that walk into a school, only three graduate.

Iron triangles tend to be broken only through large external shocks. For the military industrial complex, the end of the Cold War drastically drove down the need for military material. While still extremely powerful, defense contractors now have to compete with others for a limited pie of tax dollars.

Barack Obama may very well be the shock that cracks the iron triangle in education.

One of the president's most formative experiences was his work as a community organizer in Chicago, the very city embroiled in the strike today. He minced no words in describing what the city's school system in his memoir Dreams from my Father:

"Annual budget shortfalls in the hundreds of millions; shortages of textbooks and toilet paper; a teachers union that went on strike at least once every two years; a bloated bureaucracy and an indifferent state legislature"

President Obama has a unique opportunity to advance reform, because calls for change from a Democrat with an intimate knowledge of the dysfunction of schools in low-income, inner-city communities do not garner the "assault on public schools" label that has been given to similar efforts advanced by Republicans. And this is why the tides have turned. Union power is no longer sacrosanct. Unions can no longer phrase the debate (in any way that rings true with the voting populace) as "us versus them" as leaders from Cory Booker in Newark to Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles chafe against union interests in a push to reform large urban school systems.

Let me be clear, the educational establishment isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and teachers unions will still be extremely powerful forces in national, state and local politics. In fact, it remains to be seen how the strike in Chicago will resolve. But Chicago is just the tip of the iceberg. More and more, the demands of teachers unions will have to compete with other claims on the public's tax dollars, and if Democrats choose to stand up to this interest group, its power will be curtailed as a result.

Michael Q. McShane is a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a former inner-city high school teacher. His first book (with Robert Maranto), President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and the Political, was released by Palgrave Macmillan earlier this month.