- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2012

Chicago teachers demanding more pay went on strike Monday in a move that reverberated nationally, with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney saying the walkout reflects poorly on President Obama and his allies in the teachers labor unions.

The strike is the first for the city’s educators since the Reagan administration, and it kept more than 400,000 students in the nation’s third-largest school system out of classes.

The teachers are seeking higher pay and changes to an evaluation system that they say focuses unfairly on standardized test scores, and they are battling Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a major figure in Democratic politics who was Mr. Obama’s first White House chief of staff — the sort of tie that helped boost the issue to the fore of the presidential race.

“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. “President Obama has chosen his side in this fight. … 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.”

The teachers walked out less than two years after Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio went head-to-head with public-sector unions, with different results. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall election. In Ohio, voters overturned Gov. John Kasich’s union crackdown policy in a referendum that Democrats hailed.

Despite Mr. Romney’s assertion that Mr. Obama and the Chicago Teachers Union are in lock step, the White House said it has not taken sides in the Chicago fight.

“We certainly haven’t expressed an opinion on how it should be resolved. We’re urging the sides to resolve it,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

The Education Department said Monday that it is “closely monitoring the situation,” but offered no further comment.

Mr. Emanuel, who remains at odds with the teachers union and said the strike is “unnecessary” and “wrong,” brushed off Mr. Romney’s criticism of Democrats.

Speaking at a news conference in Chicago, he called Mr. Romney’s comments “lip service.” He said he didn’t give “two hoots” for national commentary on the strike and efforts to end it, the Associated Press reported.

While the Romney camp is clearly trying to thrust Mr. Obama into the middle of the strike, analysts say, that is a difficult task because his friend and former adviser, Mr. Emanuel, is battling organized labor, not backing it.

“It seems to me this is a local dispute. It’s about local control over education. It doesn’t have implications for Obama in that respect,” said Dan Slater, a political science professor at the University of Chicago. “It’s going to be very hard for the Romney camp to make the case that Obama is standing with the teachers unions in the streets. Obama cannot easily be associated with the forces that are striking. I doubt that Romney will have much success in nationalizing this issue.”

The disagreements between Mr. Emanuel and the union have included teachers’ demands for better pay and amenities, including air conditioning in all classrooms, and a fight over how much job security teachers should have.

The biggest sticking point has been a proposed teacher evaluation system, which the union argues unfairly punishes educators in impoverished areas and are judged based on students who traditionally score lower on standardized tests.

Some Democrats, including Mr. Obama, have taken a hard line on teacher tenure and job security. The president has said on several occasions that bad teachers must be fired.

Meanwhile, Mr. Romney’s education platform is built around school choice and providing families with more access to quality charter schools, among other things.

As in years past, teachers unions are among Democrats’ most loyal supporters and foot soldiers. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union with more than 3 million members, endorsed Mr. Obama more than a year ago, long before it was clear who his opponent would be.

Even though the Chicago strike puts a former top White House official at odds with teachers unions, members of the NEA, the American Federation of Teachers and other groups are unlikely to waver in their support of Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden, said Jaime Dominguez, an author and political science professor at Northwestern University.

“There’s a clear coalition between the Democrats and the teachers unions. They’re not going to bite the hand that feeds them,” he said. “It’s in their best interest to spin this as a local matter that has nothing to do with the Democratic Party.”

Mr. Dominguez and other analysts predict that the strike will be resolved soon, perhaps by the end of the week.

A quick end to the walkout is especially vital given the nature of Chicago, one of the most violent cities in the U.S.

City officials acknowledged Monday that children left unsupervised, especially in neighborhoods prone to gang violence, might be at risk, but they vowed to protect the city’s 400,000 students, the Associated Press reported.

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