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Why Obama wants Chicago teachers strike to go away – fast

The Chicago teachers strike, which exposes a Democratic Party rift between support for unions and for the education reforms backed by Obama, could hardly come at a worse time for the president.

By / September 11, 2012

Chicago public school teachers walk a picket line outside Lane Tech High School on Tuesday, on the second day of a strike in the nation's third-largest school district. Negotiations by the two sides failed to come to an agreement Monday in a bitter contract dispute over evaluations and job security.

Robert Ray/AP

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Everyone knows a teacher strike is bad for a mayor, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel surely never envisioned that his attempts to push through certain education reforms would lead to this.

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But in the case of the Chicago teachers strike, it’s also hard to imagine worse timing – even though it’s a local issue – for President Obama.

The strike in the nation’s third-largest district – leaving some 350,000 children out of school, while 29,000 teachers and support staff strike – is in the president’s hometown, less than two months before the election. Mayor Emanuel is Obama’s former chief of staff, and Arne Duncan, the president’s education secretary, is the former head of Chicago Public Schools.

But more than anything, the strike points to the heart of the rift within the Democratic Party over education issues, with the union on one side and “new Democrats” and their accountability-based reforms on the other. Even more pointedly, the issues at stake in Chicago don’t involve salary or money so much as those very accountability reforms that Obama, and Secretary Duncan, have championed.

The key challenge for Obama: how to avoid angering union voters just before an election while at the same time not turning his back on his education platform, which is fairly popular with independent voters and some moderate Democrats.

Obama “has to split his time in some ways between supporting the teachers’ unions, but also [being] a new Democrat in favor of education reform,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public policy at Princeton University in New Jersey. “He’s in a bind, and this could last a little while – it’s not one of the issues he wants front and center right now.”

The rift within the Democratic Party over education reform, and in particular the anger on the part of many teachers against some Obama policies and what they see as anti-teacher sentiment, has been building for some time. But in Chicago, it seems to be coming to a head.

The key sticking points in the negotiations – teacher evaluations that include at least some reliance on student growth on test scores, and whether principals at new schools can hire teachers at their own discretion or will be somewhat limited to previously laid-off Chicago teachers – are issues that the Obama administration has aggressively pushed.

Other issues that have angered the union, including merit pay (which the city has caved on), implementing a longer school day (which Emanuel won, after finding a compromise in which teachers won’t actually have to work longer hours), and charter schools, are also ones that Obama and Duncan support.

“The kind of reforms that have gotten [Obama] big plaudits – teacher accountability, charter schools, school turnarounds – are highly unpopular with the teacher unions, and unions are a core part of the Democratic base,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

“If Obama were comfortably ahead [in the polls], this would be a wonderful Sister Souljah moment for him,” Mr. Hess adds. “Unions aren’t going to Romney. But if it seems like he’s backstabbing the unions, that could start to dominate the news cycle and could suppress turnout on the left. With the election as tight as it is in Ohio and Wisconsin, that’s not a risk the White House wants to take.”

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