Like "The Salesman" in Frank Miller's Sin City, Barack Obama speaks to the NEA playing to their weaknesses:
Barack Obama has the teachers cheering. The National Education Association is meeting here, and Obama—like the Democratic candidates who have spoken before him—is telling the crowd everything it wants to hear.
He's "committed to fixing and improving our public schools instead of abandoning them and passing out vouchers." Washington "left common sense behind when they passed No Child Left Behind." Teacher pay must be raised "across the board."
And then he shoots them in the heart:
But then Obama tiptoes into the minefield of merit pay for teachers, so delicately that he does not actually utter the words "merit pay" until the question and answer session.
"If you excel at helping your students achieve success, your success will be valued and rewarded as well," he says—but he hastens to add that this must be done "with teachers, not imposed on them, and not based on some arbitrary test score."
This is whispering truth to power. But for the teachers, Obama's words are fingernails on a chalkboard. They fall silent, except for scattered boos, as he mentions a modest new program in Minnesota.
Obama appears to be the only Democrat who is willing to really take on education reform, treating the NEA like a one-night stand political bedfellow instead of committing fully like his counterparts:
Of all the Democratic candidates who came [to Philadelphia] to pay homage to the NEA—the sole Republican was former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee—Obama was the only one to deviate significantly from the union line.
Not Hillary Clinton, who tangled with the Arkansas teachers union when she oversaw education reforms that included mandatory testing for new teachers.
Not John Edwards, who bemoans the "two public school systems in America—one for the wealthy, one for everybody else," but isn't willing to acknowledge how No Child could help bridge that gap.
Not Chris Dodd, who issued a press release zinging merit pay.
While Obama's educational goals will not be very palatable to a libertarian, it is refreshing to see a Democratic candidate who understands that the NEA is part of the problem with American education.