Teachers and the President: Love Meets Indifference and Condescension

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By Mark Naison

I received a photo from an enraged Michigan teacher with whom I communicate on a regular basis. Dated January 20, 2016, it showed President Obama with a huge smile in a Detroit pizza shop preparing to visit the city’s auto show.

What a slap in the face! A smiling President visiting a city where teachers engaged in an ongoing sick-out to protest intolerable conditions in the schools where they work. Did the President care that thousands of teachers put their jobs in jeopardy to fight for decent conditions for their students? Did he say anything about the desperate conditions in Detroit schools? What kind of President visits a city in crisis and refuses to acknowledge that a crisis exists?

We expected such deplorable behavior from George W. Bush–the kind he displayed during Hurricane Katrina. From Barack Obama, who swept into the White House with teacher votes in 2008, this came as another example in a litany of betrayals.

Barack Obama said nothing during the great Chicago Teachers’ Strike of 2014. He never defended the teachers who lost their collective bargaining rights in the state of Wisconsin a few years earlier nor did he ever demonstrate that he appreciates the efforts of our nation’s educators enough to encourage them to play a role in shaping education policy.

Given the overwhelming support he received from the nation’s public-school teachers, why does he continue to ignore them as a positive force in the nation’s political life and as a bulwark of its middle class? The President’s close friend, the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, provides some clues.

Duncan’s words and deeds reflect contempt for our nation’s educators. He views them as incapable of rising to the challenge of preparing children for global economic competition—graduates from second-tier colleges and universities who entered their chosen profession by default. Unworthy of respect, they impede efforts to meet the needs of their students and of the 21st century workforce.

Test-based teacher accountability, support for charter schools, efforts to revamp teacher education, and other initiatives supported by Secretary Duncan provide ample evidence of his disdain for public schools and public-school teachers in cities like Detroit and Chicago. Remember his comments about New Orleans: Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that ever happened to education in that city” because it allowed city officials to fire so many teachers and start anew.

Who did President Obama select to replace Secretary Duncan? John King, New York’s education commissioner — an Arne Duncan acolyte — who never served as an administrator in anything other than a charter school. What can we expect from the last year of the Obama administration? Sadly, more of the same.

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