Fighting against school reform: And putting the president in a pickle

Education reform is a huge topic nationwide. In some of our nation’s largest school systems – including Chicago’s – today’s average eighth-grader can barely read.

Voucher plans, which allow poor families the same option of choosing better schools that has always been enjoyed by the well-to-do, are spreading and succeeding – though not in Nevada.

Here in Nevada, Gov. Brian Sandoval has proposed that social promotion end for third-graders who can’t read. It’s a good idea. The fact that such a modest reform is even debatable shows how far we have to go.

Teacher unions have not ended their efforts to stymie reform, particularly blocking the use of student performance, tracked by year, to reward effective teachers while identifying those who aren’t.

The Legislature in Carson City tried to enact that reform, last session. Teacher union lobbyists so watered it down that when union intransigence and a costly contract arbitration made it necessary to eliminate 1,000 teacher positions early this summer, Clark County Superintendent Dwight Jones could dump only 32 teachers for being, well … bad.

When retirements then exceeded expectations and the superintendent found himself with spots to fill, the union contract required him to hire those very same 32 teachers right back into the classroom.

In Clark County, the only way you can get rid of bad teachers is to catch them having sex with a student – if then.

Now, thanks to the weeklong Chicago teachers strike that negotiators said was headed toward a resolution Friday, the issue could play a major role in the presidential campaign.

Yes, teachers in inner-city schools face challenges that must sometimes resemble combat duty. Those problems are not of their making. But the greed of Chicago teachers is still notable. They already enjoy one of the highest average teacher salaries in the nation – $76,000 before benefits. The average family in the city – the taxpayers who fund this largesse – earns only $47,000 a year. Yet teachers in the nation’s third-largest district rejected a 16 percent salary increase over four years at a time when most families are lucky to have jobs, at all.

Benefits? Chicago teachers pay only 3 percent of their health-care costs, and out of every new dollar set aside for public education in Illinois in the past five years, a full 71 cents has gone to teacher retirement costs, according to John Fund of the National Review.

Accountability? Just 15 percent of Chicago fourth-graders are proficient in reading; only 56 percent of students who enter their freshman year of high school end up graduating. Yet the teachers union there struck in part to resist accountability reforms.

“Members are furious at the president’s initiatives that teachers believe amount to a potentially deadly assault on their profession,” reported Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post, last week “Those include teacher evaluation and pay that is linked to student standardized test scores.”

President Obama, a long-time union supporter who hails from Chicago and whose former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is now mayor there, maintained a careful silence about the strike.

“It’s obviously not helpful for Obama,” William Galston, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution and former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton, tells U.S. News and World Report. Mr. Galston says Mr. Obama is running a “campaign of mobilization” targeting his base supporters, rather than a “campaign of persuasion” that would target undecided voters. So Mr. Obama doesn’t need friction within his base.

Yet Democratic strategists warn teachers could grow increasingly disenchanted with a president who declined to actively support the 26,000 Chicago strikers.

GOP challenger Mitt Romney wasted no time staking out the high ground: “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,” Mr. Romney said last Monday. “President Obama has chosen his side in this fight, sending his vice president last year to assure the nation’s largest teachers union that ‘You should have no doubt about my affection for you and the president’s commitment to you.’ I choose to side with the parents and students depending on public schools to give them the skills to succeed.”

Already, “The fallout has affected Obama’s re-election campaign,” reports U.S. News and World Report. “Emanuel was recently tasked with amping up Democratic fundraising for their top Super PAC, Priorities USA. But the mayor announced Monday he would be backing away from that role.”

In the same week when the Obama administration’s strategy of conciliation and appeasement toward radical Muslims in Libya and Egypt appeared to be not working out so well, the teacher strike doesn’t seem any more likely to help Mr. Obama sally forth under the banner of hope and change.

Teachers “may find themselves in the same position as evangelicals, who don’t especially like Romney but will probably vote for him anyway,” warns Ms. Strauss of the Post.

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