Did Obama Insult the Teachers’ Unions?

The Washington Times reports today on the supposedly shocked reaction of edu-wonks to the president's Feb. 9 comments on education, in which he stated that in addition to more funding, schools need reform. Here is what Obama said:

But we're also going to need more reform, which means that we've got to train teachers more effectively; bad teachers need to be fired after being given the opportunity to train effectively. … We should experiment with things like charter schools that are innovating in the classroom, [and] we should have high standards.

I have a long feature coming up in our April print issue about the so-called "education wars" within the Democratic coalition, but let me say this for now: It is bunk to hype these particular comments as insulting to teachers or to to their unions. In a Nov. 17 speech to the National Press Club in D.C., Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and currently the most prominent teachers' union leader in the country, made essentially the exact same remarks. When Weingarten chose to portray her union as open to differentiated pay, charter schools, and common standards, she essentially allowed Obama and other national Democrats to embrace the "reformer" mantle, without vilifying unions.

Here was Weingarten, in that speech, on teachers and training:

…teachers are the first to say, 'Let's get incompetent teachers out of the classroom." So let's talk about creating a tenure process that both promotes excellence and ensures fairness. This summer, the AFT national convention called upon our local unions to make the process more rigorous. Through peer assistance and review, master teachers can help new colleagues learn their job, help struggling colleagues to do better, and counsel unsuccessful colleagues out of the profession.

Weingarten on standards:

Yes, we need strong and common standards.

Weingarten on charters and public school choice:

We must expand the variety of high-quality school choices within the public system. In fact, we have developed two union-run charter schools in my hometown [New York City].

So as you can see, Obama is not stepping out on too much of a limb here. He is careful to embrace reform, but only using rhetoric that fits into the unions' definition of what could be acceptable.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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