In my role as the education guy at the Reader, I've dutifully read Mitt Romney's position paper on public education—a feat I doubt even Romney has accomplished.
You can read it yourself, if you're up for the challenge. It's called "A Chance for Every Child" and it's only 30-some pages long, even with all the footnotes intended to make it seem like a scholarly dissertation as opposed to a salvo in a presidential campaign.
Here's the big takeaway for Chicagoans: in many respects, it reads like it could have been written by our very own union-busting, charter-school-loving Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Yes, that's right—Republican Romney and Democrat Rahm are like two peas in a pod when it comes to public education. It's a little ironic given that Romney blames President Obama—Emanuel's former boss at the White House—for everything that's wrong with education today.
Along with teachers' unions, of course.
Let's take it one at a step at a time, starting with the charters, which Romney loves almost as much as the family dog—though I doubt he'd strap a charter school to the roof of the car, even if he could.
"Charter schools are public schools of choice that are run independently and freed from many of the rules and regulations governing traditional school districts," says the Romney missive. "Thanks to a strong and growing bipartisan base of support, the charter movement is over 5,600 schools strong . . . . While the performance of individual charter schools in improving student achievement varies, the most successful among them are having dramatically positive effects while working with some of the nation's most disadvantaged students . . . . Under a Romney Administration, more funds will be allocated to grow the number of high-quality charter schools and create the conditions under which they can flourish."
In Romney's defense, some of the things in that passage are true. Charters do have bipartisan support, though I'm not sure why. And they are growing like weeds—110 in Chicago alone, with 60 more to be added by 2017. I assume that Romney will pump millions more into charters, if only because they're also backed by key Republican donors.
But they don't score better than regular public schools staffed by unionized teachers. Quite the contrary: in Chicago and Illinois the highest-scoring schools are unionized, complete with negotiated contracts governing seniority, tenure, and hierarchical salaries. If you reduce the field to schools with low-income students who live in the surrounding neighborhoods, the scores are about the same—though you can't really do this, since charters take kids from everywhere. Hey, give the charters this: they're masters of PR.
And, of course, they're generally nonunion shops. In Chicago, state law prohibits charters from being represented by the Chicago Teachers Union.
I suspect that's their greatest appeal to a Republican like Romney. As he puts it, "America remains gridlocked in an antiquated system controlled to a disturbing degree by the unions representing teachers. The teachers unions spend millions of dollars to influence the debate in favor of the entrenched interests of adults, not the students our system should serve."
Translation: Teachers' unions give to Democrats. Charter supporters give to both Democrats and Republicans, but mostly Republicans. Incidentally, like many other good Republicans, he's also a fan of voucher programs that use public money to send kids to private schools.
Let's not kid ourselves—this debate has very little to do with education and a lot to do with politics. It's pretty obvious to me that Romney doesn't have a clue about how to address the great challenge of public education, which is eradicating the performance gaps between the highest-achieving schools, generally located in the wealthiest communities, and their lower-scoring counterparts in poorer communities.
And who can blame him? That's the hard stuff. But he does know this: by beating the drum for charters and vouchers, he helps the cause of Republicans by undercutting the Democrats. It's good old-fashioned partisan politics, and hats off to him and the rest of the Republicans for playing it.
My main question is this: why is Mayor Emanuel—a lifelong Democrat—joining in?
Probably for the same reason on a local level. The less power the Chicago Teachers Union has, the more power the mayor has—as if he doesn't have enough already.
As Mick Dumke and I noted in last week's cover story, Emanuel routinely meets with charter school advocates and funders—some of whom, like Kenneth Griffin, are also generous donors to the mayor's campaign.
But he hasn't met with Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis since August 2, 2011, according to Lewis. And that was the meeting where Emanuel lost his temper and yelled, "Fuck you, Lewis!"
The mayor's defenders tell me he says "Fuck you" to everyone—though I personally doubt he drops it on Griffin or any of his other big-time donors.
Moreover, John Kupper, the political consultant Emanuel often hires to write his speeches, helped lead the charge against the union's recent strike-authorization vote by producing commercials for an antiunion group called Democrats for Education Reform. The purpose was to fire up parents against the union in order to force teachers to vote against a strike authorization.
It didn't work too well. Roughly 90 percent of the teachers voted to give Lewis the authorization to call for a strike should ongoing contract talks break down.
Kupper is a partner at AKPD, a firm started by David Axelrod, who, as we all know, is President Obama's chief political strategist. So you have Axelrod's firm helping lead an antiunion campaign in the president's hometown while Romney assails Obama for being a tool of the unions.
All of which makes about as much sense as our existing marijuana laws.
I called Kupper to ask why he lent himself to antiunion cause. He didn't get back to me.
But other Democratic strategists tell me there's a larger strategy at play here. Let's follow their logic: Obama is sensitive to Romney's charge that he's too beholden to unions because he fears the accusation will alienate voters in key swing states such as Virginia. So he's giving Emanuel the green light to beat the crap out of Chicago teachers in order to convince these swing voters that the president is fed up with unions too.
Well, that's one theory, anyway.
Look at it this way, teachers: by working longer for less and losing your tenure and watching while one school after another gets handed over to the charters, you're doing your part to help reelect President Obama. Not that Mayor Emanuel, his former chief of staff, will thank you.