The right accuses Barack Obama of dragging the country way left, and the left calls him gutless. The president is proving both of them wrong.
From under that mild-mannered exterior has recently emerged a man of steel — though his flexibility speaks more of Spider Man than Superman. Whichever, he’s tackling problems that conservatives say only they have the gumption to fix. And he’s doing it at the risk of off ending important Democratic constituencies.
We’ve just seen Obama spin a tactical web that may drag health care reform out of a political dark alley. His administration has begun enforcing the nation’s immigration laws in the only way that works, by nabbing those who hire undocumented workers. The Center for Immigration Studies — which doesn’t often praise Democrats — gave these steppedup enforcement efforts some of the credit for recent reductions in illegal immigration.
Now the administration is angering teachers’ unions in the name of education. Without flinching, it has supported a Rhode Island school superintendent who fired all the teachers at Central Falls High School after they refused to accept a reasonable package of reforms. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised Frances Gallo and the state education official who backed her for “doing the right thing for kids.”
I never thought I’d see that happen. Teachers are among the Democrats’ staunchest supporters, and the president has heretofore shown little stomach for displeasing public-employee unions.
Last year, I took his administration to task for not attending a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Providence because that would have involved crossing a picket line. The city’s firefighters had set it up to embarrass the mayor, a liberal Democrat trying to contain their outlandishly generous benefit package. I accused the president of caving in to “another Democratic-interest group working against the public weal.”
But now Obama is standing with the people against the foes of change. A factory town, Central Falls was ravaged in the recession and wasn’t doing so hot before. It is full of good working people wanting more for their children than they have.
More than half the high school’s students don’t graduate, and only one in 10 can do math at grade level. If any school could benefit from the administration’s anti-dropout program, it is Central Falls High.
And this isn’t some “liberal” plan to throw money at public schools. The school-improvement grants come with tough strings attached, including possible closure of failing institutions.
Superintendent Gallo first tried to negotiate with teachers. She wanted them to add 25 minutes to their 6.5-hour workday, provide one hour a week of tutoring and eat lunch with students once a week for the same pay.
It’s true that these poor kids, many speaking only Spanish, pose more challenges to educators than children from privileged backgrounds. But the least they expect is that their teachers, making an average $72,000 to $78,000 a year, put in a full day on the job.
To private-sector workers facing layoff s, furloughs, frozen pensions and assorted give-backs and chore add-ons, the demands being made on these teachers must seem modest. And how many of them wouldn’t jump for 100-percent job security, which the Central Falls teachers were promised in return for embracing reform.
Union officials in Rhode Island and Washington immediately issued thinly veiled threats to the president for “condoning the mass firing.” Trying to rouse powerful teachers’ unions everywhere, a local leader said, “Everyone looks at this as establishing a national precedent.”
I hope the precedent being set is of an Obama administration worrying less about protecting its party’s rear end and more about attacking America’s perpetual problems.
©2010 The Providence Journal Co.