Who's got what to lose in the Chicago teachers' strike
The stakes are exceedingly high for Obama and reform-mind Democrats


Article Highlights

  • Stakes in the #CTUStrike couldn't higher: for teacher unions, for Democratic #edreform, & for @BarackObama.

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  • Democrats have branded unions as part of the problem--teachers unions are on the ropes, Hess says.

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  • How long before @BarackObama will be forced to take a side on #CTUStrike?

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The typical Chicago Public Schools teacher makes $76,000 a year for working less than 200 days. CPS teachers work the shortest school day of any city in country, in a district with a 16-to-1 student-teacher ratio and per pupil spending of more than $13,000 a year. These arrangements have yielded a 60% graduation rate, in a district where more than 97% of teachers are rated effective.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's former chief of staff, is pushing to extend the system's school day and put in place meaningful teacher evaluations that, among other things, link ratings to improvements in student achievement. He's offered the Chicago Teachers Union a 16% pay bump over the next four years, at a time of tight budgets and 8% unemployment, if they'll sign on

The CTU has instead opted to strike. In doing so, it has larded its list of grievances with a slew of petty concerns (including complaints about air conditioning and an insistence that teachers from shuttered schools be hired back without regard to job performance).

The stakes in all this couldn't be higher: for teacher unions, for Democratic education reformers and for President Obama.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has been careful to not embrace her Chicago chapter too closely, and to sound statesmanlike in public remarks. The difference couldn't be starker from the incendiary language she used in attacking Gov. Scott Walker during the 2011 battle royale over collective bargaining legislation in Wisconsin.

"What's different is that this is a bad fight for the teacher unions - most of the public, seeing the facts, will not be on their side - it comes at an awful time, and an ugly defeat could be a crushing blow." -Frederick M. HessWhat's different is that this is a bad fight for the teacher unions - most of the public, seeing the facts, will not be on their side - it comes at an awful time, and an ugly defeat could be a crushing blow.

Remember, in 2011, Wisconsin and Indiana Republicans succeeded in sharply curtailing collective bargaining for teachers. In 2012, Walker beat back a furious union recall effort.

In July, National Education Association president Dennis van Roekel announced that his union has lost more than 100,000 members, and is eyeballing even bigger losses. Meanwhile, key Democrats have branded the unions as part of the problem.

All of which is to say: Teachers unions are on the ropes.

For education reform Democrats, this is a rubber-meets-road moment. To date, most efforts to reform teacher evaluation and pay have been accompanied by generous dollops of new cash, as in Denver or Washington D.C. or with President Obama's Race to the Top program. Now, in an era of lean wallets, will an iron-willed mayor who helped pass the President's agenda be able to adopt much-needed changes without a big infusion of new cash?

If even he can't, it will raise questions about whether less combative Democrats will have the stomach to follow through on education reform.

Things get especially dicey for the president. Obama probably can't afford to undercut a major public employees' union less than two months before the election. He needs all those union households in Ohio and Wisconsin to be energized about casting their ballots and working the phones. But neither can the president let swing voters who like his reform bona fides see him walking away from his former chief-of-staff or his own reform agenda. That would allow Romney to argue that the president is all talk on school reform.

Lacking good choices, the president has thus far tried to stay out of it. The White House is leaning on its friends in Chicago to get a deal done, fast, before the president starts getting pressed to take a side.

Lost in the furor is that the union actually has some valid points to make, on school closures and teacher evaluation. For instance: There are reasonable concerns about simple-minded teacher evaluation that relies too heavily on students' reading and math scores, or on a handful of cookie-cutter classroom observations. In choosing to strike rather than negotiate, however, the CTU has ensured that any legitimate concerns have been swept under by politics and the passion.

If the CTU folds, it'll suggest that tough-minded Dems can stand toe-to-toe with the unions just as effectively as Republicans can. If Emanuel folds, it'll be a much-needed salve for the teacher unions and a serious blow to the President's credibility on a symbolically potent question. Meanwhile, the longer the strike goes on, and the more attention it gets, the higher the stakes.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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