WASHINGTON (AP) — 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."