They couldn’t make a deal in Chicago so more than 350,000 public school kids won’t have class on Monday.
Why are teachers in the third largest school district in the country going on strike for the first time since 1987, when a walkout lasted 19 days?
Because Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave up some, but not enough, of his questionable plans to reform schools with initiatives that haven’t been shown to be effective (but are popular anyway, such as teacher evaluation systems that are linked to standardized test scores).
Because Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis refused to extend the strike deadline to see if they could get more from Emanuel while letting kids go to school. The city had moved off its original position and most likely could have been pushed to move more.
The very personal Emanuel-Lewis feud — that sometimes erupted into name-calling — didn’t help matters either.
It’s worth remembering that these issues have been on the table for months — things like wages and fair teacher assessment and job security and how to compensate teachers for a longer school day. In fact, in July an interim agreement was reached. How did everybody let it get to this point?
Unfortunately, for both sides, it’s a bad, bad time for teachers to walk off their jobs in Chicago.
For one thing, teachers unions have been demonized in recent years by many school reformers, who blame the labor organizations for many of the problems with urban schools.
The unions have been slow to embrace the issue of quality and to support changes in what were too often utterly ineffective teacher evaluation systems. Still, the biggest problems in education are the same in areas with and without unions, a point that seems to go over the head of those who are anti-labor.
And in Chicago, teachers have justifiably felt disrespected and mistreated by management for years, which is why there was an extremely strong strike vote over the summer.
Still, with unions under attack by a number of governors around the country, with school district budgets being slashed, and with the national unemployment rate over 8 percent, a strike by teachers demanding job security isn’t likely to win over public support and could fuel anti-union sentiment.
That said, this is equally bad news, if not worse, for Emanuel and, by extension, the Obama administration.
Emanuel was Chief of Staff for President Obama, who lived in Chicago before moving to the White House. Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, was chief executive officer of the public schools in Chicago for more than seven years before being tapped by Obama.
Obama is hoping that labor organizations will help get out the vote for him in November and members will support him at the ballot box. A strike by teachers who oppose his education policies right now could well affect how some of them vote.
Chaos in Duncan’s former school system is hardly a strong endorsement of his leadership there, either, as many of the issues that teachers are grappling with go back to his tenure, and even before.
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