WASHINGTON – Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said Monday that striking Chicago teachers are turning their backs on thousands of students and that President Barack Obama is rooting for the absent educators. Obama's top spokesman said the president has not taken sides but is urging both the teachers and the city to settle quickly.
Chicago's mayor, Obama ally Rahm Emanuel, called Romney's statement "lip service" as the contract dispute in the nation's third-largest school system inserted itself into the hard-fought presidential campaign.
Romney said he chooses to side with the parents and students, echoing his oft-repeated campaign speech claim that teachers' unions are out for themselves.
"We ought to put the kids first in this country and the teacher's union goes behind," Romney, in the Chicago area for a fundraiser, told conservative syndicated radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt in a telephone interview. "As president, I will stand up and say, look, these teachers unions are not acting in the — with the best interest of the kids in mind."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was monitoring the situation in his hometown but was not itching to get involved.
"We hope that both sides are able to come together to settle this quickly and in the best interests of Chicago's students," Carney told reporters.
The move by 26,000 teachers and support staff affected almost 400,000 students. It was the latest flashpoint in the public debate over public employee unions that have roiled politics in Ohio, Wisconsin and beyond.
Obama political aides in Chicago criticized Romney for seeking advantage and pointed to his repeated campaign statements that class size does not affect a student's education.
"Playing political games with local disputes won't help educate our kids, nor will fewer teachers," said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.
Emanuel, Obama's former White House chief of staff, was more direct in dismissing Romney.
"While I appreciate his lip service, what really counts is what we are doing here," Emanuel told reporters. "I don't give two hoots about national comments scoring political points or trying to embarrass — or whatever — the president."
Romney looked to tap into parents' concerns nationally with the dispute in Illinois, a state heavily favoring Obama in the fall elections.
"Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet," Romney said in a statement issued by his campaign. "President Obama has chosen his side in this fight, sending his vice president last year to assure the nation's largest teachers union that 'you should have no doubt about my affection for you and the president's commitment to you.'"
Romney was quoting Vice President Joe Biden's remarks to the National Education Association in 2011 during which he also acknowledged that "not all teachers are created equal" and urged educators to be accountable.
Romney running mate Paul Ryan joined the criticism of the president, saying he doesn't agree with the Chicago mayor very often but that "on this issue, on this day, we stand with Rahm Emanuel. We stand with the parents and the families of Chicago."
"We have to ask, 'Where does President Obama stand? Does he stand with his former chief of staff, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with the children and the parents, or does he stand with the union?" Ryan told donors at a fundraiser in Portland, Ore.
Obama too has urged accountability in teachers — moves union leaders have opposed.
For instance, Obama's administration has favored pilot programs that challenge current practices, rewarded schools that try new approaches and pushed for longer school days.
Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, is a former head of Chicago Public Schools who pushed for changes the unions opposed.
Associated Press writer Jonathan J. Cooper in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.