Politics & Policy

‘They Wanted More School’

Obama on education reform.

In his book The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama tells of a “youth town hall meeting” he conducted in 2005 at Thornton Township High School, in what he describes as a predominantly black suburb of Chicago. To prepare for the visit by their newly elected and highly popular senator, students there were surveyed about the quality of their education, with the idea that they could present their concerns.

Obama writes:

[T]heir number one issue was this: Because the school district couldn’t afford to keep teachers for a full school day, Thornton let out every day at 1:30 in the afternoon. With the abbreviated schedule, there was no time for students to take science lab or foreign language classes.

How come we’re getting shortchanged? they asked me. Seems like nobody even expects us to go to college, they said.

They wanted more school.

Senator Obama probably did not know that the average teacher in Thornton Township District earned an impressive $83,000 that year, short days notwithstanding. (The figure does not include administrators, who made much more.) In fact, more than one-quarter of the district’s teachers made more than $100,000 in 2005, according to figures compiled from the Illinois Board of Education by Champion News under the state’s freedom of information laws.

But Obama did at least identify the short school day at Thornton as a problem. Unfortunately, he has been less than audacious about the same problem in the nearby City of Chicago — a place where the teachers’ union that strongly supports him has been shortchanging children for decades in precisely this same way.

The elementary-school day and year in Chicago proper are the shortest of any major U.S. city. It lasts five hours and 45 minutes, and the schools are open just 174 days per year. This is entirely a result of the intransigence of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), a staunch ally of Barack Obama and an early endorser of his presidential candidacy.

The CTU has vigorously resisted all attempts to increase instruction time in Chicago schools. In 2007, the CTU thwarted Mayor Richard M. Daley’s attempt to make teachers teach for full school days. They negotiated a new contract that contained no extra hours but significant pay raises for the next four years. Deborah Lynch, the previous CTU president, agreed in 2003 to a 15-minute increase in the school day (from five and a half hours) in exchange for a seven-day reduction in the school year and large annual raises. The minor concession she made — a net five hours of extra teaching time per year — was used against her in the next teachers’ union election, which she narrowly lost.

Chicago schools are well-funded at 20 percent above the national average, and Chicago teachers are well-paid. 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.

At entry level, Chicago teachers earn $43,702, plus $3,059 in pension contributions from the school district, according to CTU’s salary schedules. A starting teacher this year who does nothing to further his own education during the coming summers will be making more than $60,000 by 2012. Those who take graduate-level classes will boost themselves into the $100,000 range by the end of their careers.

Chicago teachers have terrific pay and hours, and summer vacations. Their students, on the other hand, are getting a raw deal. The city’s elementary schools produce underachieving and barely literate high-schoolers. The Chicago Tribune reported in 2005 that Chicago public high schools have a four-year graduation rate of just 54 percent. According to one recent study, only 6 percent of entering freshmen in Chicago public high schools will obtain college degrees by age 25. Only 31.4 percent of Chicago high-school juniors met or exceeded state standards last year on the Prairie State Achievement Examination.

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.

Obama has argued, rightly, that it is “unacceptable in a country as wealthy as ours that children every bit as special as my own children are not getting a decent shot at life.” But he quietly accepts educational failure in Chicago because — as with many issues in his career — he does not waste his political capital on reform when it might cost him something or pit him against his political allies. This is especially true of unions like CTU.

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. Everyone wins, except for the public-school children in Chicago.

Obama’s approach to education is part of a much broader pattern that characterizes his political career, as with his backing of Chicago’s machine bosses, his sponsorship of legislation and earmarks to help such donors as Tony Rezko, and his support for special-interest subsidies in Washington. Obama participates in or at least remains silent about real problems and systemic corruption that is caused by his own political allies.

Like the other special interests who have invested in Obama, the CTU knows he can be trusted never to seek real reform. He is a reliable partner who does not rock the boat.

– David Freddoso is a National Review Online staff reporter and author of The Case Against Barack Obama.


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