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Education Re-Emerges as National Issue

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

As attention turns to the Democrats' gathering in Charlotte, N.C., for their own convention next week, the education debate will be somewhat less predictable. Many Democratic mayors have had standoffs with teachers unions over contracts on matters ranging from tenure to the length of the school day.

Advocates of overhauling the public education system on the Democratic side have had vociferous disagreements with unions, with the most obvious example being Washington, D.C., where former Chancellor Michelle Rhee had regular disputes with Weingarten.

"Democratic advocates of education reform are fighting for the fundamental civil right of all children to have a high quality education - a right that is currently being denied to too many children, especially those of color and from low-income communities," said Hari Sevugan, vice president for communications with StudentsFirst, an education advocacy organization founded by Rhee.

"Every time our party defends a broken public institution, we hurt our ability to argue that government can be an instrument of change. Unfortunately, that's the case too often when we are talking about schools, and for the sake of the country and the party, that needs to change," Sevugan added. He was previously a national spokesman for the Democratic National Committee and the 2008 Obama campaign.

Sevugan highlighted that many Democratic mayors have backed a "parent-trigger" that would allow parents in failing schools to launch petition drives to change the structure of the school, which could in some cases result in the conversion to charter schools.

StudentsFirst held a film screening in Tampa of the film "Don't Back Down," which tells a story about an effort to overhaul an underperforming inner city school. The group will do the same in Charlotte next week.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is also the chairman of the Democratic National Convention, is among those supporting a related resolution by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Villaraigosa is not alone. The union in Chicago filed a 10-day strike notice earlier this week amid a contract dispute with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the fiery former Congressman who was President Barack Obama's White House chief of staff.

Weingarten emphasized that issue is different from the GOP-led efforts.

"We have urged both parties to stay at the table until they have resolved these issues," she said.

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