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In February of last year, Rahm Emanuel was running for mayor of Chicago when neighboring Wisconsin exploded. The state’s governor, Republican Scott Walker, had introduced a budget-repair bill stripping most collective bargaining rights from public sector workers. Democratic legislators fled the state to avoid having to vote on the bill, and unions and activists descended on Madison to occupy the statehouse. Pulsing throngs of protesters filled the rotunda, its dome echoing with chants of “Hey HEY! Ho HO! Scott Walker’s got to go!”
At the time, Emanuel condemned Walker’s approach: “There’s no respect, no sense of cooperation, no sense that we all have a vested interest in working something out,” he told CNN. Emanuel, legendary for his profane combativeness, had spent his mayoral campaign cultivating a more conciliatory image. “We’re gonna deal with our fiscal issues by being honest with each other, straightforward and on a level of respect to work out the agreements that are necessary to put our fiscal house in order so our economy can grow,” he said.
That was then. On Sept. 10, Chicago’s teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years, just as the city’s 400,000 students were starting school. After 10 months of negotiations, contract talks between City Hall and teachers’ union leaders broke down over issues of pay, teacher evaluation, and the rights of laid-off teachers. The president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Karen Lewis, has called Emanuel a “bully” and a “liar.” At a rally shortly before the strike, she told thousands of cheering supporters that “The only way to beat a bully is to stand up to a bully!” Familiar chants erupted from the crowd: “Hey HEY! Ho HO! Rahm Emanuel has got to go!”
Two months before the presidential election, the strike presents the incongruous sight of Emanuel, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff and one of the leaders of his reelection effort, in the middle of a fight that the White House surely wants to go away immediately. The Obama administration and its education secretary, Arne Duncan, the former head of Chicago’s public school system, have refrained from taking sides in the battle, loath to alienate either education reformers—among whose ranks are many of the president’s most generous Wall Street donors—or the teachers’ unions, with their legions of politically engaged, traditionally Democratic supporters.
Yet Emanuel’s willingness to provoke a showdown with the unions reflects deeper frustration with an education establishment that even Democrats believe has become an impediment to reform. The union leaders’ intransigence comes off as tone-deaf at a time when public finances are strained to the breaking point, unemployment remains high, and the performance of U.S. students, as compared with students in the rest of the wealthy world, is still dismal. The public school system is one of the last strongholds for organized labor, which has seen its power dwindle across virtually every other sector of the American economy. For the unions, the battle in Chicago may be less about tenure or testing or salaries than about survival.
Emanuel has had a wary relationship with Chicago’s public sector workers. As a candidate he promised to improve the schools, in part by extending the school day—which in Chicago is among the shortest in the nation—and bring pension costs under control. Fixing the schools was vital to his plan to shore up the city’s dwindling tax base by making it a more attractive place for middle-class families to move to. Several months after taking office he announced that the city faced a $635.7 million budget deficit.
Emanuel has said he offered the teachers—who, at $75,000 make significantly more than the average Chicagoan—a 16 percent pay raise over the next four years, and both sides have agreed on a plan to hire more teachers to handle the longer school day. For its part, the union insists that money isn’t the issue. The two biggest sticking points they refer to have to do with how teachers are evaluated, and what happens to them when the schools they teach at close—an issue that gained weight when the Chicago Tribune reported that the Emanuel administration is considering plans to shutter 80 to 120 schools.
The battle shows the different tenses in which the two sides live. The teachers’ unions are fighting a rear-guard action to preserve a set of workplace rights that fewer and fewer Americans enjoy anymore—and that many never did. The education reformers, for their part, describe a world in which complex algorithms can help separate child-maximizing good teachers from potential-stifling bad ones—a world that, while it may someday come to exist, doesn’t correspond with still-crude tests of teacher performance.
The union’s position is that laid-off teachers should have priority when new jobs open up elsewhere in the school system. The city counters that while those teachers should certainly be considered for other openings, guaranteeing them jobs would limit the ability of school principals to hire whom they want to. So-called recall rights are common in teachers’ union contracts. But in the world in which the vast majority of Americans work, the idea that an employer would have to hire someone because they were previously laid off rather than because of their qualifications is laughable.
The other issue the union is balking at is teacher evaluation. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act enshrined in federal law the idea of evaluating schools and teachers at least partly on the basis of student test scores. The Obama administration has embraced that approach in its own Race to the Top grant program. In Chicago, the public school board wants to increase the weight given to standardized test scores in teacher evaluations; the union is resisting it.
There’s a King Canute-like quality to the Chicago union’s taking on teacher evaluation: Half the states in the country have put such systems in place. And yet the union does have a point. The science of teacher evaluation remains in its infancy. So-called Value-Added Models—which essentially measure a teacher’s impact based on changes in students’ test scores from year to year—though widely used, remain unproven. Research has shown that VAM will evaluate the same teacher as exemplary one year and very poor the next. Studies by the RAND Corp., the Educational Testing Service, and the National Research Council have all concluded that the method isn’t ready for use in determining teacher effectiveness.
“These concerns are legitimate, it’s fair to say that reformers may have put the policy agenda ahead of the technology,” says Michael Petrilli, an education official in the George W. Bush administration now at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a pro-reform think tank. “The teachers are not wrong when they say there are problems with the way the systems are working.”
Whether this was worth striking over is another question, especially since Illinois already uses test scores in teacher evaluations. Sooner or later, teachers in Chicago were going to have to face the music—just as public sector unions have in Wisconsin and elsewhere. With private sector union membership having plummeted to 6.9 percent, politicians of both parties have less incentive to defend the prerogatives of public sector unions. And that’s especially true when it comes to public schools, which have failed the working-class and minority families who should be labor’s natural allies. In Chicago, the high school graduation rate is just 55 percent—and that figure is much worse among black and Latino boys.
The saving grace for the Chicago teachers is that Rahm Emanuel and other pro-reform politicians remain equally vexed about how to solve America’s schools crisis. The heat on both sides won’t subside until they start finding answers.