Times Finds Excuses for Lousy Rhode Island School, Hits President from Left for Supporting Teacher Dismissals

Even Barack Obama agrees with a Rhode Island school board that fired all its teachers, but the Times fires a warning shot from the left: "Officials at the two unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, were so angry in the hours after Mr. Obama first endorsed the firings that an irreconcilable break with the administration seemed possible, perhaps bruising Democrats' electoral chances in November."
President Obama temporarily endeared himself to conservatives by endorsing a Rhode Island school board's controversial decision to fire the entire faculty of underperforming Central Falls High School, after a dispute with the union over adding 25 minutes to the school day. The Times, ever alert, fired a warning shot from Obama's left and dug up some excuses for the school's bad performance, often from the same teachers that were dismissed.

Steven Greenhouse and Sam Dillon filed a long story for Sunday's National section, "A Wholesale School Shake-Up Is Embraced by the President, and Divisions Follow." (Greenhouse is a labor reporter for the paper and has penned many pieces sympathetic to the movement.)

A Rhode Island school board's decision to fire the entire faculty of a poorly performing school, and President Obama's endorsement of the action, has stirred a storm of reaction nationwide, with teachers condemning it as an insult and conservatives hailing it as a watershed moment of school accountability.

The decision by school authorities in Central Falls to fire the 93 teachers and staff members has assumed special significance because hundreds of other school districts across the nation could face similarly hard choices in coming weeks, as a $3.5 billion federal school turnaround program kicks into gear.

While there is fierce disagreement over whether the firings were good or bad, there is widespread agreement that the decision would have lasting ripples on the nation's education debate - especially because Mr. Obama seized on the move to show his eagerness to take bold action to improve failing schools filled with poor students.

"This is the first example of tough love under the Obama regime, and that's what makes it significant," said Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, an educational research and advocacy organization.

The Times loaded up and fired a warning shot from the teachers' unions:

Mr. Obama's endorsement of the Rhode Island board's tough action infuriated many of the four million members of the two national teachers' unions, thousands of whom campaigned vigorously for him in 2008.

"I ripped the Obama sticker off of my truck," said Zeph Capo, a midlevel official at the Houston Federation of Teachers who trains classroom teachers. "We worked hard for this man, we talked to our neighbors and our fellow teachers about why we should support him, and we're having to dig the knife out of our back."

Officials at the two unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, were so angry in the hours after Mr. Obama first endorsed the firings that an irreconcilable break with the administration seemed possible, perhaps bruising Democrats' electoral chances in November. Recognizing how a permanent breach could hurt everyone, however, both sides sought to lower tensions, partly by encouraging a negotiated settlement in Central Falls, administration and union officials said in interviews.

But neither the president nor Education Secretary Arne Duncan backed off his support for tough action, including dismissing teachers en masse, to improve learning conditions in chronically failing schools. At the high school in Central Falls, a poor community with a large immigrant population, only 7 percent of 11th graders passed state math tests last fall. And if the administration's posture was undermining its support among teachers, it was earning unusual praise from conservatives, as well as from supporters of an overhaul of the nation's schools.


In Central Falls, community protests erupted against the firings. Marcia Reback, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, said members of the state's Congressional delegation had urged the parties in Central Falls to return to the negotiating table.

Were those truly grassroots "community protests," or more like "teachers' union protests"? The local Providence Journal revealed that the big "community protest" in Central Falls was composed mostly of teachers bused in from other towns - and the Teamsters:

An estimated 600 to 700 people, many of them teachers from other districts, rallied Tuesday afternoon at Jenks Park to support Central Falls High School teachers facing layoffs at a Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday night....Busloads of teachers arrived from Coventry, Warwick, Providence, East Providence and Cranston. The Teamsters Union Local 251 parked a full-size tractor-trailer rig in front of the park, and people in stood with others in matching jackets, representing various trade groups.

The Times concluded with the perspective of a teacher unconnected to the events in Rhode Island to accuse Obama of "a bloodthirsty mentality."

Teachers nationwide, including many who had once campaigned for Mr. Obama, said the events in Rhode Island had left a bitter taste.

Anthony J. Mullen, an instructor at the Arch School in Greenwich, Conn., who is the national teacher of the year, said he supported the notion of establishing more accountability in schools. "But what kind of accountability are we talking about?"

"This 'off with their heads' mentality," he said, "it's a bloodthirsty mentality."

Reporter Katie Zezima's previous report on February 25, "A Jumble of Strong
Feelings After Vote on a Troubled School
," also excused the bad school. In both stories, the Times assumed the teachers union, as opposed to all other unions, was looking out for the best interests of their clients (the children) as opposed to their own best interests.

Like many other teenagers in this troubled city, Sheila Gomes said she found a surrogate family outside her home at Central Falls High School.

But with the school board's decision on Tuesday to dismiss the entire faculty as part of a turnaround plan for the chronically underperforming school, some say they are losing one of the few constants in the state's poorest city, where 41 percent of children live in poverty and 63 percent of the high school's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.