Politicians who are hellbent on undermining—and ultimately privatizing—public education in America often imagine that parents share their disdain for public-school teachers and the unions that represent educators. It is a fantasy fostered by too much listening to right-wing talk radio shows and too little listening to American families.
So it came as no surprise that Mitt Romney, a product of elite private prep schools, offered a fully tone-deaf response to the strike by Chicago public school teachers. "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 announced. "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."
Like too many politicians in both parties, and too many elite commentators on the right (and the neo-liberal fringe that is so well represented in major media), Romney’s completely off base.
At the same time that the Republican nominee for president was saying he would "side with the parents," the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper was reporting that the parents were siding with the men and women who educate their children and the Chicago Teachers Union.
In a story headlined "Aldermen back mayor, but parents with teachers," the Sun-Times noted that "as the strike began, the majority of parents and students at school gates across the city seemed to be taking the teachers’ side."
The paper reported that: "The huge number of motorists honking their horns as they passed picket lines suggested teachers have substantial public support…"
"I don’t know if bullying is the word I would use, but my feeling is the mayor is not really listening,” Jorge Bernal, the father of two students at Peirce School of International Studies in Edgewater Beach, told the Sun-Times.
According to the Sun-Times: "Fellow Peirce parent Wendi Brown waved a pro-union sign and said she would never undermine the teachers by leaving her son at school while his teacher picketed. "I’m a Jewish girl who voted for Rahm to be mayor of this city and I am disappointed — I’m almost embarrassed to say I voted for him,” Brown said. “I agree with him on many issues but we got him there and he needs to stand with us today."
Similar reports appeared in other media outlets.
And, as reports of progress in negotiations suggested the strike might soon finish with a victory for the teachers, the union was highlighting a new poll that showed 66 percent of parents of Chicago public school children supported the teachers.
The same poll found that a clear majority of parents surveyed blamed Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his school board for the strike—not the teachers.
A Chicago Sun-Times newspaper survey also found that Chicagoans were supportive of the strike, and that less than 20 percent thought Emanuel was doing a good job of handling labor dispute. That’s the same sort of approval that Dick Cheney was getting in 2007 and 2008 for his approach to the Iraq occupation.
Yet, while Romney was disengaged and bumbling in his response to the strike, Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan was—true to form—making thecrudely political calculation of siding with the mayor. He tried to game the dispute for partisan advantage. Speaking of Emanuel, the corporate Democrat who picked the fight with the teachers, Ryan said: "Rahm and I have not agreed on every issue or on a lot of issues, but Mayor Emanuel is right today in saying that this teacher’s union strike is unnecessary and wrong. We know that Rahm is not going to support our campaign, but on this issue and this day we stand with Mayor Rahm Emanuel."
The gambit was an obvious one. Emanuel is a former Obama White House chief of staff who had a high-profile speaking slot at this month’s Democratic National Convention. So Ryan embraced him with an eye to dividing Democrats. That’s pretty predictable politics and Emanuel pushed back, with a poke at Romney-Ryan schemes that would cut education funding in order to pay for more tax breaks for the super-rich.
The truth of the matter is that the debate is not between Democrats or Republicans. It is between supporters of public education—like the members of the Chicago Teachers Union and the parents who back the union as it fights for smaller class sizes, safer schools and smart approaches to educating at-rise kids—and those in both parties who would squander the nation’s future to school political points.
For more on the Chicago Teachers Union strike, read Matthew Cunningham-Cook on the media’s misdirected coverage of the story.