Rahm’s reform moment

Teachers striking in Chicago should come as no surprise. On one side is Rahm Emanuel, the city’s profane and hard-driving mayor, and the on the other side is Karen Lewis, the Dartmouth educated chemistry teacher, who once said of Arne Duncan, “you know he went to private school, because if he’d gone to public school, he’d have had that lisp fixed.” Not exactly the most congenial pair. Lewis battled Rahm before his election and claimed he wanted to “warehouse” children by adding hours to some of the shortest school days in the nation. Rahm, according to The Atlantic, does not want to repeat the mistakes of the last round of negotiations, under Duncan. Those talks led to promises of higher pay, money that has not yet found its way into teacher paychecks, and a shorter school year. As Rahm said, “I know what the teachers got, and I know what the politicians got. But I don’t know what the kids got.”

Both sides have drawn their lines; now the public will wait and see who flinches first.

Emanuel is trying to position himself as the defender of children’s rights and has called the union’s move as a “strike of choice.” Lewis and other union leaders frame themselves as under attack from a “bully” with no recourse other than their latest maneuver. Both sides have drawn their lines; now the public will wait and see who flinches first.

While some predicted a quick resolution, the strike has now gone on for four days. Typically, strikes occur over wage cuts, working conditions, and collective bargaining rights. (Remember Wisconsin). The difference this time is that the issues are not merely pay: Chicago Public Schools teachers start out making $50,000 per year ($5,000 more than those in New York City). No, what’s at stake in Chicago is the much larger ed-reform debate. Mayor Emanuel has proposed longer days, more charter schools, and tougher accountability measures for teachers. Emanuel says that he must empower the principals so that they can be answerable to parents and the community. If accomplished, Rahm’s agenda would make the nation’s third-largest city a leader in ed reform.

Union leaders like Lewis have rejected most of Emanuel’s plan. They want their 16-percent raises to take effect faster than 4 percent each year and are vehemently opposed to a new teacher-evaluation system that counts test scores as forty percent of a teachers evaluation. Where the compromise eventually comes from is anyone’s guess.

Others have pointed out Emanuel’s Washington connections and thus how the spotlight of the political season would shine on Chicago. Mitt Romney’s campaign quickly released a statement in support of Emanuel, but Emanuel deftly pivoted to a full-throated defense of President Obama and Race to the Top.

However, the local issue will remain a local issue. The national media will quickly move on from this story once there is a resolution (my prediction is this weekend, although it could come as soon as this afternoon). And Illinois is not in any danger of voting against the President, one of its favorite adopted sons. The only national implications are for Rahm Emanuel, a once and possibly future star in the Democratic Party. Is he willing to turn off a huge Democratic constituency to do what he sees as right? If he is, we will know he is not interested in national office. Karen Lewis will be a formidable opponent, but, just as the union battle in Wisconsin made Scott Walker into a Republican celebrity, this battle could seriously hurt Emanuel’s brand.

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