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Obama: Not Owned By Teachers Unions

National Review's David Freddoso has a column this week arguing that Barack Obama marches in lockstep with teachers' unions. I came to a different conclusion in an article back in March, and it struck me as an especially odd claim to make given that Obama was booed last month at the convention of the National Education Association, the country's biggest teachers' union, and received a similarly cool reception when he appeared there last year.

Upon closer inspection, Freddoso's case is not at all persuasive. He makes a few basic arguments. One, the Chicago teachers' union endorsed Obama, and they should stop complaining because their members have it made:

Unlike most Americans, they enjoy nearly absolute job security and receive sizable annual pay raises, regardless of economic conditions. And they finish the school day when many other people are headed back to the office after lunch.

First, part of this is simply false: When the economy goes south, teachers get laid off just like everyone else. It's also quite insulting to teachers--they begin their day when most other people are just climbing out of bed, spend hours in preparation outside of the classroom, and (in cities like Chicago, anyway) have to put up with rather undesirable working conditions. And even if one concedes Freddoso's point that the Chicago Teachers Union has succeeded in improving the lot of its members, it's not clear why this is an indictment of Obama, who's merely accepted their endorsement (even as the two largest national teachers' unions conspicuously declined to endorse him in the primary). Next, Freddoso writes:

Obama has acquired an undeserved reputation for reform in education because he offers very mild rhetoric about a merit-pay program for teachers. Even here, though, he takes all of the teeth out of the idea by promising his allies that the measure of “merit” will not be determined by objective student achievement--“arbitrary tests”--but by some yet-undiscovered measure to be chosen by teachers’ unions. It is the rough equivalent of President Bush developing a plan for oil prices in conjunction with Saudi sheiks or Exxon executives.

Obama’s merit pay for teachers would also come only in exchange for six-figure teacher salaries, which many states and districts simply cannot afford. True to his ideological liberalism, he reflexively dismisses any ideas such as educational vouchers or tax credits to help Chicago children get a decent education. The unions oppose such policies, and thus so does Obama.

Again, we have a rich blend of false charges and logical fallacies. What Obama has said is that merit pay should be "not just based on an arbitrary test score," not that test scores shouldn't factor into the equation at all. (He's praised compensation programs like Denver's, which does take test scores into account.) He certainly hasn't proposed letting teachers' unions choose measures of merit or have veto power over them; he's merely made the radical suggestion that teachers be consulted in their design. It's abundantly clear that unions aren't unilaterally dictating the terms of these schemes. And I defy Freddoso to produce a shred of evidence that Obama believes merit pay should "come only in exchange for six-figure salaries" that localities can't afford. He's called for increased pay in exchange for increased accountability, but it would be federal money--the president, of course, doesn't control state and local education budgets--and in any case it would be nowhere near the amount required to boost the salaries of teachers in question into the six-figure range.

On the question of vouchers, Obama's position has been widely reported: He's not ideologically opposed to them, but is skeptical because there isn't much evidence that they improve student performance (as even conservatives are now beginning to conclude). It's not just teachers unions who dislike vouchers; it's ordinary voters in nearly every jurisdiction where they've been proposed. So there's no basis for suggesting that Obama opposes vouchers only because unions do. What's more, Obama has long been a vocal supporter of public charter schools, which makes the unions uneasy.

Finally, Freddoso unearths this bombshell:

In The Audacity of Hope, he writes of CTU and the other unions whom he counts as allies: “I owe those unions. When their leaders call, I do my best to call them back right away. I don’t consider this corrupting in any way.”

Is it corrupting? CTU rewarded Obama for his silent loyalty in October 2007 by endorsing him for president.

That's right: Obama does his best to return union leaders' phone calls--and in exchange, they endorse him! Pretty scandalous, if you ask me. Probably a good idea to vote for the candidate who cares so much about public education that he didn't even bother putting forward an education policy during his party's primary.

--Josh Patashnik