The Chicago teachers’ strike added an interesting dynamic to the presidential race. Though the strike is apparently now on the brink of settlement, the issues it has raised will not go away any time soon.
So far one of the biggest losers in the strike was Obama. After all, the strike was essentially a face-off between two important parts of the president’s base—teacher unions and neoliberal social reformers (in Chicago led by his former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel). Many of the reforms that the teachers were fighting against—the expansion of charter schools, the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, and the closure of “failing schools”—are reforms that were started by then–Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan, now Obama’s Secretary of Education. In fact, the policies being contested by teachers in Chicago have largely been incorporated into federal policy under Obama’s Race to The Top (RTT) initiative.
Obama frequently touts RTT in campaign speeches, at rallies and press conferences, along with what he regards as his administration’s other signal accomplishments in education policy: the adoption of national Common Core standards by forty-six states, the provisional enactment of the DREAM Act, and more. Clearly, the president has raised education as a campaign issue because he knows it matters. Consistently, the polls have shown that the public is deeply concerned about the state of public education. The severe cut backs in funding brought on by the recession have taken a heavy toll on schools throughout the country. In battleground states like Ohio, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Florida, thousands of teachers and other personnel have been laid off, class sizes have risen and critical programs—kindergarten, music, art, afterschool programs etc. have been slashed or even eliminated. (For his part, Mitt Romney has said very little about education—apart from vague references to expanding choice, vouchers and access to charter schools—effectively conceding that he doesn’t have any ideas of his own.)
Though union activists and others (myself included) have been critical of many of the president’s education policies, he does deserve credit for allowing states to use stimulus funds to offset some of the effects of austerity, saving over 400,000 jobs in education. Even if the relief provided by the feds has been temporary, the damage would have been far worse without federal support. And he deserves unequivocal praise for his efforts to make college affordable and accessible through revisions to Pell Grants and to lower interest rates on student loans.
However, his big weaknesses all along have been his stance toward teachers and his unwillingness to acknowledge that the biggest challenge confronting public schools across the country is actually poverty. What has happened in Chicago’s schools exemplifies these weaknesses.
The district has been undergoing reforms consistent with Obama’s accountability agenda—expanding charter schools, closing failing schools and recruiting uncertified teachers from Teach for America—for several years now. But only 44.6 percent of Chicago Public School students meet or exceed the Illinois Learning Standards. Chicago’s schools have some of the highest dropout rates in the nation and In 2011-12 of the 598 schools in the system, 443 did not achieve Average Yearly Progress for two consecutive years [This link will download an Excel file].