Obama on Monday had nothing to say publicly about the matter embroiling his adopted home town. “The president . . . has not expressed any opinion or made any assessment about this particular incident,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said when asked about the strike.
In Chicago, 26,000 teachers and paraprofessionals picketed in red T-shirts outside empty schools while nearly 400,000 children were left with nothing to do Monday. Scores of churches, community centers and parks welcomed children who needed a safe place to spend the day while the adults continued to try to find agreement at a negotiating table downtown.
The tension in Chicago began before Emanuel was elected. On the campaign trail, he pledged to add 90 minutes to the school day and extend the school year. Chicago is the country’s third-largest public school system but has one of the shortest school days.
Union leaders argued that Emanuel cannot unilaterally extend their workday by 20 percent.
When Emanuel took office last year, the school district faced a $700 million budget shortfall, and he rescinded 4 percent raises for teachers that had been negotiated and settled. He offered bonuses for teachers and schools that waived the contract and adopted a longer school day; the union challenged the move before the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.
Emanuel successfully pushed for a new state law that made it harder for the teachers to strike; union members responded by overwhelmingly meeting the new hurdles to authorize a strike. Emanuel and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis reportedly got into heated exchanges during private meetings. Things went downhill from there.
“Anger. This is about anger,” said Barbara Radner, director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University in Chicago. “There is great, great hostility about the mayor right now among the teaching population. They call him ‘Empermanuel.’ He triggered that by saying, ‘I don’t need you. We’re going to have a longer school day.’ ”
Emanuel said Monday that the city’s latest offer to the union was “respectful of our teachers,” noting that it would be a 16 percent pay raise over four years, covering a cost-of-living increase and additional pay for a longer school day. “It does right by our students, and it is fair to our taxpayers.”
One of the remaining sticking points is a new state-mandated teacher evaluation system. The new law calls for student test scores to account for at least 25 percent of a teacher’s job performance rating, and Emanuel wants to increase that to 40 percent over several years.
Lewis says the evaluation system unfairly blames teachers for the poor test scores of students who are struggling with poverty, broken homes, violence and other social ills.
“There are too many factors beyond our control which will impact on how some of our students perform on those standardized tests,” Lewis said Sunday night. “. . . Poverty — which no one wants to talk about — exposure to violence . . . homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control.
“Evaluate us on what we do, not the lives of our children that we do not control.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, spent the weekend trying to create a bridge between the local affiliate and Emanuel.
When Emanuel was elected, “he wanted to make major changes in Chicago Public Schools and wanted to do it quickly,” said Weingarten, who is flying to Chicago on Tuesday. “Some changes we didn’t agree with, some we agreed with. But changes of that kind of magnitude need to be done collaboratively and correctly, not just quickly.”
Last week at the Democratic National Convention, Emanuel took on another pivotal political role, to bolster fundraising for super PACS backing the party. On Monday, however, he backed away at least temporarily from the fundraising.
Major labor donors to Priorities USA Action, the super PAC supporting Obama, include the Service Employees International Union ($1.5 million) and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association ($1 million), according to Federal Election Commission records. Majority PAC, which is focused on shoring up Democratic control of the Senate, has received nearly $3.3 million from labor groups, including $300,000 from the American Federation of Teachers, records show.
Dan Eggen contributed to this report.