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Obama must stick to his guns on education

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
  • Navarrette: Obama is engaging in election-year wooing of distraught teachers unions
  • He says unions who backed Obama are put off by reforms that target teacher performance
  • Obama pouring money into education funding, but some balky unions turn away
  • Navarrette: Obama must stay focused, not compromise on reform to win midterm support

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist, an NPR commentator and a regular contributor to Watch CNN's "Fix Our Schools" coverage all this week for concrete, unique solutions to the U.S. education crisis.

San Diego (CNN) -- It's back-to-school time, which means some in the media have gone back to asking: "What's wrong with our schools? And how can we fix it?"

But it's also an election year. That has President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan -- both of whom have shown themselves to be deeply informed about what's wrong with our schools and how to fix it -- trying to make peace with a powerful Democratic ally. Unfortunately, this ally also happens to be one of the things that's wrong with our schools: some of the teachers unions.

Here's the background:

When Obama and Duncan arrived in Washington, the Harvard-educated, basketball-playing buddies stormed onto the field of education reform like a pair of Chicago Bulls in a china shop, and appropriately so.

They went off on teachers unions, graduate schools of education, underperforming districts and those self-serving "educrats" in the system who resist accountability because they'd rather not know what students don't know than find out and have to do something about it.

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Shape up or ship out, Obama and Duncan said.

Obama made clear that he favored federal rewards for districts that fire underperforming teachers and closing failing schools. He believes that educators need to be held accountable for low test scores and high student dropout rates.

Both men praised Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, where in February the school board voted to dismiss the entire faculty -- including more than 70 teachers -- as part of a dramatic turnaround plan for the school, which has a graduation rate of less than 50 percent. (The teachers were hired back in May after teachers and the superintendent reached a deal for a longer school day, mandatory student tutoring and more rigorous teacher evaluations.)

Many teachers unions hated Obama's approach, every bit of it. They felt that Obama had betrayed them.

Here they had helped elect him by contributing money and volunteers. They assumed they were getting a natural advocate because, during the campaign, Obama criticized No Child Left Behind, along with virtually every other initiative tied to George W. Bush.

But once in office, Obama launched education reforms that mirrored the Bush program. In fact, Obama either kept or expanded upon most of what those unions complained about with Bush.

Under Bush, teachers unions went ballistic over an expanded federal role in public education, a reliance on standardized tests to measure student performance and an accountability system that threatened to shut down failing schools.

The unions were more supportive of plans to expand the number of charter schools but warned that this was no substitute for improving public schools overall by increasing funding.

But Obama maintained the emphasis on testing and the support for charter schools. And he reconfigured the idea of accountability to focus not just on schools but individual teachers.

Obama wants to pay good teachers more than mediocre ones and determine which is which by how well students perform on -- wait for it -- standardized tests.

No Child Left Behind has been rebranded as "Race to the Top." That's the Obama administration initiative where states and school districts embrace innovation and compete for more than $4 billion in federal stimulus dollars.

But races can be tough. So some teachers unions --like the one in California -- decided they'd rather stay stuck on mediocre, opt out of the competition and lose out on the free money. All so they wouldn't have to sign off on the accountability measures that came with it.

Until recently, Obama deserved an "A" for his education reform efforts, which included a willingness to take on teachers unions.

But, according to an article in Politico, Obama has recently been engaged in a little apple-polishing that comes in time for the midterm elections. He invited teachers to the White House and pushed Congress to pass a massive spending bill not tied to accountability that probably saved the jobs of thousands of teachers all over the country.

Obama now praises teachers as "the single-most important ingredient in the education system." And instead of pointing out what schools do wrong, the emphasis is now on highlighting school success stories.

The White House is framing it as a back-to-school message that has nothing to do with politics.

Careful gang, fibbing can get you detention.

Obama was right the first time. There's no doubt that he's in a tough spot. He wants to fix our schools, and win an election. He can do both. He has to choose, and he shouldn't play election year politics with education reform. He should stay loyal to his tough message and stick to his guns. We need to seek out "best practices" for what works in our schools and fix what doesn't.

Don't worry about teachers unions. They can take care of themselves. But there are a lot of kindergarteners out there whose future depends on our ability to get this right.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.