Why Isn't Obama Afraid to Take on the Teachers' Unions?

Two extraordinary things happened in the world of education recently. Taken together, they’re powerful confirmation of just how precipitously the teachers' unions are declining in power and influence. Yet I can see a very plausible outcome in which we conservatives fumble the ball on the one yard line -- and hand them back their power.

First, a Rhode Island school district decided it was fed up with chronic failure at one of the state’s (and probably the country’s) worst schools, and announced it would fire every single teacher at the school. In an industry where pretty much nobody ever gets fired for anything, that was an earthquake.

Then something even more amazing occurred: President Obama gave the firings an unambiguous endorsement. Noting that only 7 percent of the school’s 11th graders pass the state math test, he remarked: “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.”

The teachers' unions exploded; the president of the largest union made openly threatening statements about how much the president would regret crossing them. The professional experts whined that we don’t know whether this kind of dramatic intervention will work!

“I’ll tell you what doesn’t work,” replied Obama’s education secretary. “Doing nothing.”

I don’t want to oversell this. They’re now making noises in Rhode Island about finding some kind of “compromise” that will save some teachers’ jobs. That would save some degree of face for the unions, which would reduce the scope of the victory.

But those noises may themselves be a feint; I wouldn’t be surprised if the full firings went through. And the district is demanding big concessions from the unions in return for any walkback on their part, and there’s every reason to think that they’d get them. With Rhode Island being singled out as having one of the nation’s worst education gaps, with a national leader in teacher personnel policy reform (and protégé of D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee) running the state school system, and with Obama providing cover, there’s no way the district will do anything that could be seen as caving in. However this goes down, it doesn’t end well for the unions.

The first question we should be asking is this: why on earth would Obama endorse something like this? It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to say something like: “We need to create accountability, and that needs to be firm, but this isn’t the way to do it.” He would pay no price -- zero -- with any of his constituents for saying that. And he would have avoided hacking off the nation’s biggest labor union, one of his more important constituencies.