Potential Rahm Emanuel Challenger Highlights Dems' Education Split

Wednesday, 16 Jul 2014 09:54 PM

By Cathy Burke

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A potentially epic political clash brewing in Chicago because of a possible challenge to Mayor Rahm Emanuel by the fiery head of the Chicago Teachers Union is putting the spotlight on deep rifts among Democrats over education policy.

News site Vox writes that teachers' union leader Karen Lewis' strident opposition to the education reform movement is in stark contrast to Emanuel – President Barack Obama's former White House chief of staff – who "is about as associated with the . . . Obama and Arne Duncan school of education reform as you can get." 

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Lewis is inching closer to a mayoral challenge, setting up an unofficial exploratory committee and polling 9 percentage points ahead of Emanuel. 

"At the national level, the reformers have the momentum," Vox notes, adding: "The teachers' unions are fighting back, but Democrats for Education Reform has successfully backed candidates in the Senate and in statehouses."

Reform efforts crashed, however, in Washington, D.C., the news site noted, citing Mayor Adrian Fenty's loss in 2010 after he'd instituted sweeping education reforms. 

Earlier this month, the clash between Democratic Obama administration reforms and the nation's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association, came into sharp relief.

NEA delegates adopted a business item July 4 at their annual convention in Denver calling for the resignation of Education Secretary Duncan, underscoring the long-standing tension between the White House and teachers' unions, a historically steadfast Democratic ally.

Duncan has incurred the wrath of teachers' unions with his support in June of a California judge's ruling that struck down tenure and other job protections for the state's public school teachers, saying "Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students."

Randi Weingarden, president of the American Federation of Teachers, blasted Duncan in an open letter, writing: "Teachers across the country are wondering why the secretary of education thinks that stripping them of their due process is the way to help all children succeed," Business Week reported. 

Education writer Diane Ratvich, an opponent of tenure reforms, chided Duncan for sounding like a Republican, Business Week reported.

"Not a word about the real causes of unequal opportunity: poverty and segregation," Ratvich wrote. "Who would have believed that a Democratic administration would . . . hail a court decision removing due process from public school teachers? Mitt Romney's secretary of education (had he won) could have issued this press release."

Even before that, however, Democrats in the White House and teachers' unions wrangled over issues ranging from the administration's support of charter schools to its push to use student test scores as part of evaluating teachers.

The NEA said it was calling for Duncan's resignation because of the "department's failed education agenda focused on more high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores, and for continuing to promote policies and decisions that undermine public schools and colleges, the teaching education professionals, and education unions."

Duncan was chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools before he took office in 2009.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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