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.
“I think it’s going to give some cover to other school boards and school superintendents around the country that want to do something similar,” Mr. Petrilli said. “They can say the president of the United States, Barack Obama, someone the teachers voted for, supports us here to take some radical actions to shake up our schools.”
In Boston on Thursday, another city moving to carry out the administration’s school-turnaround policy, officials announced that staff members at six underperforming schools would have to reapply for their jobs. Carol R. Johnson, the schools superintendent, said staff members were not being fired, but were being asked to “recommit” themselves. This move angered the teachers’ union, which said it was exploring legal action.
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.
“The administration is putting down a real marker here,” said Alex Johnston, chief executive of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, a business-backed education advocacy group.
The decision by the Central Falls school board came under the terms of a new Obama administration policy intended to spur interventions in thousands of failing schools nationwide.
To get a share of the $3.5 billion in what are known as School Improvement Grants, school officials can choose to transform the learning environments in failing schools by extending instructional hours and making other changes, converting them to charter schools, closing them entirely or replacing the principal and at least half the staff.
The Central Falls superintendent, Frances Gallo, initially chose the first option this year, but after a dispute arose with the union over extra pay for adding 25 minutes to the school day, she broke off negotiations. Backed by the local school board, she announced the firings on Feb. 23. Last Monday, Mr. Obama supported the board’s action in a speech to a dropout prevention group.
“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,” Mr. Obama said. “And that’s what happened in Rhode Island last week.”
National union officials were shocked.
“Teachers were taken aback — and profoundly disappointed,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Teachers will watch carefully whether Washington, the states and local districts will be partners that help us do our job or whether they’ll be scapegoating and demonizing.”
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.
On Wednesday, Dr. Gallo agreed to resume contract talks, raising the possibility that at least some of the firings would be rescinded. Nonetheless, at week’s end, the two sides said animosity remained strong and negotiations were unlikely over the next few days.
Dr. Gallo said she had invited the union to participate in a meeting of parents, district officials and other parties on Thursday to help plan the school’s future.
Meanwhile in Washington, the Obama administration was bracing for similar controversies in other communities as more states identify failing schools.
“This is not a political strategy; this is about reforming the lowest-performing schools,” said Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman. “It’s not always painless, it’s not easy. But what’s critical is taking action in these places.”