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Obama Draws Rare Accolades From Big-Business Group

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce does not have a history of bestowing much love on the Obama administration. So it was a bit of a head-turner this week when the prominent business group issued a press release lauding the Education Department.

The chamber gave its seal of approval to the department’s awarding its initial Race to the Top grants for public education to Delaware and Tennessee.

“This reflects a real emphasis by the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to award only those states who are truly dedicated to reform,” said Arthur J. Rothkopf, senior vice president of the chamber, in the statement. “Keeping the bar high also provides great incentives for the remaining states to continue implementing legislative reforms in order to be more competitive for the next phase of funding.”

The rare praise follows a blizzard of criticism from the chamber blasting the White House’s stands on health care and financial reform as well as Obama’s National Labor Relations Board recess appointment of Craig Becker, who serves as associate general counsel to both the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union.

Chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff said that the business group has been largely supportive of a number of President Barack Obama’s educational initiatives, including the Race to the Top competition and the president’s recommendations to Congress for overhauling the No Child Left Behind law.

“Not everyone likes to recognize that,” she said.

At the beginning of March, Obama spoke at an event sponsored by America’s Promise Alliance at the chamber where he addressed lowering the dropout rate and preparing students for college.

Conversely, the two major teachers unions, which have been some of Obama’s staunchest supporters on health care reform, have not been as thrilled with the Democratic president’s educational policy. The unions responded lukewarmly this week to the Race to the Top awards.

While American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten congratulated Delaware and Tennessee for being selected, she said she was disappointed that no states with large urban centers were among the recipients.

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel applauded the recipients for developing education blueprints in collaboration with all stakeholders, alluding to the fact that teachers unions in both states signed off on the plans.

But, he added, “unfortunately the Race to the Top competition does not address the pressing needs of students in all states.”

“For the other 48 states that did not receive any funding, their financial situations are still just as bleak,” Van Roekel added.

The teachers unions have also clashed with the Obama administration over its plans to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law, which they say still relies too much on standardized tests to pick winners and losers.

The Race to the Top competition will ultimately award $4 billion in grants to qualifying states. In the first round announced Monday, Delaware is expected to be awarded $100 million and Tennessee is expected to get $500 million. The states were cited for their plans to reform their public school systems, including expanding charter schools and improving teacher evaluation methods.

The competition has prompted griping from some states about changes the federal government was demanding from them in return for federal dollars. Alaska and Texas dropped out of the competition, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican and persistent Obama critic, complaining it would entail too much interference from Washington.

The chamber took some credit for Tennessee’s win noting that in 2007 the business group flunked the state’s educational system in three areas as part of its ranking of public schools in 50 states.

That abysmal rating led the state’s Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen to call for dramatic improvement in academic standards, according to the chamber statement.

“We commend Governor Bredesen for following through on his commitment,” the chamber’s Rothkopf said. “In just a short amount of time he elevated the state of Tennessee from being a laggard to showing true dedication to education reform.”

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