Obama angers union officials with remarks in support of R.I. teacher firings

By Michael A. Fletcher and Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

President Obama voiced support Monday for the mass firings of educators at a failing Rhode Island school, drawing an immediate rebuke from teachers union officials whose members have chafed at some of his education policies.

Speaking at an event intended to highlight his strategy for turning around struggling schools by offering an increase in federal funding for local districts that shake up their lowest-achieving campuses, Obama called the controversial firings justified.

"If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show signs of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability," he said. "And that's what happened in Rhode Island last week at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th-graders passed state math tests -- 7 percent."

The board that oversees Central Falls High School took the startling step last week of firing 93 teachers and other staff members after the teachers union refused to agree to a plan for them to work a longer school day and provide after-school tutoring without much extra pay.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, whose union represents the faculty in Central Falls, one of the poorest districts in Rhode Island, responded forcefully to Obama's remarks.

"We know it is tempting for people in Washington to score political points by scapegoating teachers, but it does nothing to give our students and teachers the tools they need to succeed," she said in a joint statement with other union officials.

In an interview, Weingarten said Obama's comments about the school "don't reflect the reality on the ground and completely ignore the commitment teachers have made to turn things around." Weingarten said the union was "profoundly disappointed by the comments" and said the president "seems to be focused on . . . incomplete information."

Obama has often challenged union orthodoxy in his education agenda, promoting the expansion of public charter schools -- which frequently are not unionized -- and teacher performance pay. The two major national educators unions are not formally opposed to those ideas, but many of their members are skeptical.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said repeatedly that he wants to work with unions rather than impose reforms on them, and the National Education Association, with 3.2 million members, and the AFT, with 1.4 million members, have generally sought to play down policy differences with the administration.

Obama's comments came as he spoke at a meeting of America's Promise Alliance, a group founded by former secretary of state Colin L. Powell and his wife, Alma. The group has launched an initiative aimed at curbing the nation's school dropout rate.

"This is a problem we cannot afford to accept and we cannot afford to ignore," Obama said during the event, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters.

The White House said 1.2 million students drop out of school each year. The problem is concentrated in the nation's poorest schools and among minority students.

Obama has sought to combat the problem with an infusion of federal aid for school districts that develop innovative plans to help students graduate. With the proposed funding, Obama is placing a bet on four strategies to fix thousands of failing schools.

Each of the strategies, at minimum, appears to require replacing the school's principal. The "turnaround" model would also require replacing at least half the school staff.

"Restart" schools would be transferred to the control of independent charter networks or other school management organizations. "Transformation" schools would be required to take steps to raise teacher effectiveness and increase learning time, among other measures. The fourth strategy would be closing a school and dispersing its students.

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