So, President Obama now thinks that a longer school year is a good idea? Of course he does, and that’s great. But will anything come of it?
Obama has a history with the good idea of increasing instructional time — a history of saying it’s a good idea and then looking the other way as his political allies make sure it never happens. Allow me to quote myself at length, from when I was promoting The Case Against Barack Obama in 2008:
In his book The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama tells of a “youth town hall meeting” he conducted in 2005 at Thornton Township High School, in what he describes as a predominantly black suburb of Chicago. To prepare for the visit by their newly elected and highly popular senator, students there were surveyed about the quality of their education, with the idea that they could present their concerns.
[T]heir number one issue was this: Because the school district couldn’t afford to keep teachers for a full school day, Thornton let out every day at 1:30 in the afternoon. With the abbreviated schedule, there was no time for students to take science lab or foreign language classes.
How come we’re getting shortchanged? they asked me. Seems like nobody even expects us to go to college, they said.
They wanted more school.
Senator Obama probably did not know that the average teacher in Thornton Township District earned an impressive $83,000 that year, short days notwithstanding. (The figure does not include administrators, who made much more.) In fact, more than one-quarter of the district’s teachers made more than $100,000 in 2005, according to figures compiled from the Illinois Board of Education by Champion News under the state’s freedom of information laws.
But Obama did at least identify the short school day at Thornton as a problem. Unfortunately, he has been less than audacious about the same problem in the nearby City of Chicago — a place where the teachers’ union that strongly supports him has been shortchanging children for decades in precisely this same way.
The elementary-school day and year in Chicago proper are the shortest of any major U.S. city. It lasts five hours and 45 minutes, and the schools are open just 174 days per year. This is entirely a result of the intransigence of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), a staunch ally of Barack Obama and an early endorser of his presidential candidacy.
The CTU has vigorously resisted all attempts to increase instruction time in Chicago schools. In 2007, the CTU thwarted Mayor Richard M. Daley’s attempt to make teachers teach for full school days. They negotiated a new contract that contained no extra hours but significant pay raises for the next four years. Deborah Lynch, the previous CTU president, agreed in 2003 to a 15-minute increase in the school day (from five and a half hours) in exchange for a seven-day reduction in the school year and large annual raises. The minor concession she made — a net five hours of extra teaching time per year — was used against her in the next teachers’ union election, which she narrowly lost.
Chicago schools are well-funded at 20 percent above the national average, and Chicago teachers are well-paid. Unlike most Americans, they enjoy nearly absolute job security and receive sizable annual pay raises, regardless of economic conditions. And they finish the school day when many other people are headed back to the office after lunch.
As a historical update, the winner of that union election (Marilyn Stewart) went on to make a deal with Mayor Daley that resulted in more charter schools coming to Chicago. As a result, she was trounced this summer by an even more strongly anti-reform candidate (Karen Lewis), who wants to stop charter schools and ban standardized tests as a way of measuring progress. So as America goes one way on school reform, the CTU is headed in the exact opposite direction.
During the D.C. mayor’s race, it was thrilling to see many on the Left come around on education reform after decades of ignoring the problem their union political allies have caused. That doesn’t mean we can be confident now that Obama will put some meat behind his rhetoric. The “Race to the Top” program is a great carrot, but here he’s talking about the stick. Will he ever pull it out? Will he draw blood and possibly suffer Mayor Fenty’s fate?
Forgive me if I’m skeptical.