The head of one of the country’s largest teachers unions knows all too well the frustrations of her rank and file – many of whom vehemently disagree with some of President Barack Obama’s education policies.
At the same time, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is clear in both her support for Obama and her solidarity as Chicago’s teaching force entered the third day of a strike over unfair labor practices.
Weingarten is prepared to go head-to-head with Obama’s tough-talking former chief of staff and key advisor, Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has called the strike “unnecessary,” and a “strike of choice.”
“Teachers want to be back in schools educating kids,” Weingarten said at a press conference in Chicago on Tuesday. “The teachers in this city are the salt of the earth, but they need the respect and dignity.”
As the strike enters its third day with no sign of an imminent agreement, Weingarten defended having Obama staying out of the conflict, calling the strike a local issue. Weingarten said the strike makes her no less passionate about campaigning for his reelection.
“Advisors are not the president,” Weingarten told The Hechinger Report on Tuesday. “We need to go all out [to support Obama]. The stakes are too high. [The Republicans] want to dismantle public education. We want to fix it.’’
Weingarten still plans to attend pro-Obama rallies in key swing states, doing everything possible get out the vote and issuing a dire warning that re-electing the president is necessary to preserve public education in the U.S.
So will Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union.
“President Obama’s vision for the kids in America and the role education will play in their lives – I have no doubt that it is absolutely in sync with ours,” Van Roekel said. “What we disagree with him at times is how to get there.”
The strike comes at a critical moment in the campaign, and as a new, more complex relationship between the unions and a president who wants to mandate education reforms they resist is emerging. Democrats have traditionally been a pro-labor party, though, and the two teachers unions and their combined membership of 4.5 million heavily supported Obama’s presidential bid in 2008. But shortly after he and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took office, battles broke out over issues like merit pay and tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
The strike in Chicago represents the culmination of many of those tensions. Contract negotiations in Chicago have centered on issues like healthcare benefits and length of the school day, but a major sticking point remains around teacher evaluation and compensation. A 2010 Illinois law mandated that teachers be evaluated, in part, based on student gains. And Emanuel wants to eliminate automatic pay raises for teachers.
Since 2010, The Hechinger Report has been taking an in-depth look at efforts to improve teacher effectiveness. What’s the best way to identify a good teacher? Should test scores be used to hire and fire teachers? How is the role of a school principal changing? Are schools improving as a result of the new efforts?
Obama’s signature education program, Race to the Top, had states competing for funds in exchange for promising education reforms, and it sparked feuds on these issues across the U.S. Even so, many teachers say they support Obama and both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have already officially endorsed him.
“The alternative is a Republican. The last thing they want is for a Republican to win,” Terry Moe, a professor at Stanford University and author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, said in an interview earlier this year. “Obama has basically boxed them in.”
For his part, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney expressed his “disappointment,’’ in the Chicago union’s decision to strike. “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,” he said in a statement on Monday.
Weingarten accused Romney of trying to use a local issue politically. “Unfortunately Romney’s budget ideas would just make the issues in Chicago worse,” she said, arguing that a Romney administration would increase cuts and decrease supports for teachers all while placing a higher emphasis on testing.
Union officials insist that enthusiasm for Obama has not waned, and that they will be out in force manning phone banks, knocking on doors and attending rallies.
“[They have] a small army of political workers around the country,” Moe said. “This is huge in what they can offer to candidates that they support.”
Both Van Roekel and Weingarten said the contrast between Democrats and Republicans during their two conventions helped crystalize the need for teachers to rally behind Obama, even those who feel overly criticized by his policies.
They note that in contrast, Romney’s education plans call for low-income and special needs students to be able to use public funds to go to any school of their choosing – public or private. Many teachers who attended the Democratic convention in Charlotte accused him of wanting to privatize education.
Van Roekel said Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan don’t support public education or equal opportunity access to quality education.
“When it comes to Romney/Ryan our disagreements with them will never be about the how, it’s about the where,” he said. “Where they want education to go in America – I don’t want it to go there.”
Weingarten agrees. “Everyone they put on the stage who talked about education talked about opting out, divesting from it,” she said. “As passionate as I am about [Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s] test fixation, and the need to focus more on teaching and learning instead of teaching to the test, the stakes are, will children have a public education?”
In key battleground state Ohio, the Ohio Federation of Teachers will spend the next two months reaching out to its membership to make sure they understand both Obama and Romney’s positions on education, said union President Melissa Cropper.
“[The election] is not a referendum on Obama,” Cropper said. “It’s a choice.”
Liz Willen contributed reporting to this article.