After a day of silence, the Obama administration addressed the ongoing strike of the Chicago Teachers Union, a blistering fight that has divided labor, one of the most reliable bases for the Democratic party, against Democratic Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“I hope that the parties will come together to settle this quickly and get our kids back in the classroom," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. "I’m confident that both sides have the best interests of the students at heart, and that they can collaborate at the bargaining table –- as teachers and school districts have done all over the country –- to reach a solution that puts kids first.”
Duncan's administration is monitoring the situation, and sources said he is being advised to publicly stay out of the fight and not take sides.
Duncan's statement comes one day after Mitt Romney began trying to turn the strike into an election topic, attempting to portray the issue as one that's tearing up Democrats from within, particularly Democrats in Chicago. Chicago Mayor Emanuel was previously Obama's chief of staff in the White House, and Duncan was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Duncan got to know Obama in Chicago, playing games of pickup basketball.
On Monday, Romney released a statement siding with Emanuel, saying that Obama has made his alliance with the Chicago Teachers Union known by sending Vice President Joe Biden to speak at the National Education Association's conference. "Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet," Romney said. "I choose to side with the parents and students depending on public schools to give them the skills to succeed, and my plan for education reform will do exactly that."
The remarks were followed by a barrage of statements from Republican governors and education chiefs -- via the Romney campaign -- who similarly lashed out at Obama. Among them was Tom Luna, Idaho's superintendent of education, who often agrees with Obama on school issues -- but not in this case, he said. “President Obama’s refusal to speak out against the teachers union strike in Chicago represents an abdication of leadership," Luna said in a statement. "His silence inhibits those very things [education reform] and yields to the whims of special interests at the cost of students."
It was one of many attacks Romney has put out seeking to paint Obama as a puppet of entrenched interest, such as teachers' unions. "If I'm president of the United States, instead of just giving lip service to improving our schools, I will actually put the kids first and the union behind in giving our kids better teachers, better options and better choices for a better future," Romney said at a May fundraiser.
Late Monday, Romney's running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (W-Wisc.) said that he stands with Emanuel. "Mayor Emanuel is right today in saying that this teacher's union strike is unnecessary and wrong," Ryan said in Oregon on Monday. "We know that Rahm is not going to support our campaign, but on this issue and this day we stand with Mayor Rahm Emanuel."
In response to Romney's comments, Emanuel said, "While I appreciate Mitt Romney’s statement, on behalf of the kids and the parents of the city of Chicago, if he wants to help, he could then determine that when it comes to his tax cut, he will never cut the Department of Education and the funding that’s necessary, and he will make sure that there will never be a cut in any education to pay for his tax cuts for the most fortunate."
The second day of the strike neared its close on Tuesday with no end in sight, as thousands of teachers in red t-shirts again rallied in downtown Chicago, some singing and drumming to songs like "Solidarity Forever." David Vitale, Chicago school board president, said the city has been willing to compromise with teachers on some of the contentious issues, such as the timetable for implementing and appealing teacher evaluations. But CTU president Karen Lewis told the crowd today, "To say that the contract will be settled today is lunacy." Negotiations continued, and CPS announced that its "Children First" school alternatives would continue serving kids until as late as 2:30 pm this week.
Lewis was joined by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who flew in from New York to give her personal contribution to the cause and address the strikers. "Just like the kids are not test scores, you are not test scorers," she said.