Among the signs that striking Chicago teachers are carrying are ones that say, “Obama don’t ignore us.”

((Sitthixay Ditthavong/AP))

The White House hasn’t issued an official statement from the president about the strike in Chicago, whose mayor is Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff. This statement released Tuesday is the most we’ve heard from Education Secretary Arne Duncan:

“I hope that the parties will come together to settle this quickly and get our kids back in the classroom. I’m confident that both sides have the best interests of the students at heart, and that they can collaborate at the bargaining table – as teachers and school districts have done all over the country – to reach a solution that puts kids first.”

Once, labor unions could rely on Democratic politicians and Democratic politicians could rely on unions. In education reform today, that old equation doesn’t work. Democrats, including President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, who happens to come from Chicago, have embraced some school reform efforts that are championed by Republicans.

Though the two national teachers unions — the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — both endorsed Obama, many of their members are furious at the president’s initiatives that teachers believe amount to a potentially deadly assault on their profession.

Those include teacher evaluation and pay that is linked to student standardized test scores, an assessment method that experts have warned repeatedly is extremely unreliable. But Emanuel — along with other mayors and governors — are implementing (or trying to) anyway. This is one of the big sticking points in the Chicago strike; Emanuel wants test scores to be 50 percent of teachers’ evaluations.

On one side of the divide is Emanuel, who is pushing reforms that the president’s own Education Department has been pushing for several years. Obama, of course, lived in Chicago before becoming president, and Duncan ran the Chicago public school system for more than seven years before joining Obama in Washington.

It would be impossible for Obama to come out against Emanuel.

Yet it would be equally impossible for him to come out against the union.

Recognizing that Obama is between a rock and a hard place, Romney used the situation to try to bash Obama. His statement said:

I am disappointed by the decision of the Chicago Teachers Union to turn its back on not only a city negotiating in good faith but also the hundreds of thousands of children relying on the city’s public schools to provide them a safe place to receive a strong education.

Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet. President Obama has chosen his side in this fight, sending his vice president last year to assure the nation’s largest teachers union that ‘you should have no doubt about my affection for you and the president’s commitment to you.’ I choose to side with the parents and students depending on public schools to give them the skills to succeed, and my plan for education reform will do exactly that.”

Saying Obama has chosen a side in the strike misses the point that he can’t.

Obama’s campaign needs the labor movement to help get out the vote in November and to go into the ballot box and pull the lever for the president. Some furious educators are saying they won’t vote for Obama, and though it isn’t likely that these traditional Democrats will switch their vote to Romney in big numbers, they could vote for a minor party or stay home.

The national teachers unions will set up the apparatus to get out the vote, but it is individual members who have to do the work, and if they aren’t enthusiastic, the get-out-the-vote operation could be affected.

Just how many teachers and other educators will decide not to vote for Obama isn’t clear, but there are more than 3 million active teachers and millions more former teachers.

Teachers may find themselves in the same position as evangelicals, who don’t especially like Romney but will probably vote for him anyway.

Still, in states where the vote is tight, it isn’t inconceivable that the school reform debate could play a role in how the election ends.

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