Harold Meyerson
Opinion writer September 11, 2012

So much for Democratic Party harmony.

Just a few days after a convention that displayed the party as one big happy family, a civil war has erupted in Chicago between the Democrats’ disparate wings.

Harold Meyerson writes a weekly political column that appears on Thursdays and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

Rahm Emanuel, the volatile, far-from-union-friendly mayor who is a mainstay of the national Democratic Party, and the almost-as-volatile Chicago local of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), itself a mainstay of the national Democratic Party, are at loggerheads over the future of Chicago’s schools and teachers. The school strike that began Monday should be an alarm bell in the night for Democrats everywhere.

At stake in the conflict is not only the future of education reform but also the role of unions within the party and, by extension, the nation. Emanuel’s clear desire to reduce the teachers union’s role in the city’s schools is hardly his alone. It’s shared by other Democratic mayors such as Los Angeles’s Antonio Villaraigosa. Still other heavily Democratic cities, such as San Jose, Calif., have reduced their employees’ pension benefits. What’s brewing is a battle between Democratic Party management (chiefly mayors, backed by a significant portion of the public) and Democratic Party labor, also backed by a significant portion of the public. If there’s a win-win scenario out there, the party and its publics would do well to find it.

Win-win, however, is not the kind of solution toward which Chicago’s take-no-prisoners mayor inclines. To run the city’s schools, Emanuel hired Jean-Claude Brizard, the schools chief of Rochester, N.Y., where he’d earned a no-confidence vote from 95 percent of city teachers. After taking office, Emanuel canceled planned pay raises for teachers and moved to lengthen the school day by 20 percent. Chicago’s school day, one of the nation’s shortest at six hours, should certainly be lengthened, but imposing this change without discussion with teachers and with no commensurate increase in their pay or benefits was the essence of autocratic management.

Chicago’s teachers might also have concluded that someone was gunning for them when the state legislature passed a law requiring teachers, and only teachers, to clear a 75 percent threshold in any union vote to authorize a strike. Disrespect and derision generally engender a backlash, and Chicago was no exception to that rule: The local elected more militant leadership, and when it came time for a strike vote, more than 90 percent of the city’s teachers voted to walk.

If there were a strong case for the kind of school reforms that Emanuel and his many allies are promoting, then this move to roll over the teacher unions might have some heft to it. To be sure, there are some unimprovably crummy teachers who shouldn’t be kept in their jobs by virtue of a contract. But there is no evidence that teaching and educational outcomes in nonunion charter schools or in states where teachers can’t bargain collectively are any better than they are in bastions of union strength. In California, charter middle and high schools have a mind-boggling 50 percent teacher turnover rate — a crude indicator, admittedly, but one that suggests all is not well in the very schools that so many educational reformers insist are the solutions to our problems.

That said, there are school districts and charter schools where education reform and strong unions are not counterposed — indeed, where each strengthens the other. In New Haven, Conn., the contract between the school district and the AFT local calls for rigorous teacher evaluation, but it’s a process that involves regular classroom monitoring and mentoring by administrators and former teachers as well as test scores. In New York, the AFT local has a contract with the charter-school operator Green Dot Public Schools whereby teachers are evaluated much as they are in New Haven; teachers there are also involved in the process of hiring their peers; and administrators can dismiss a teacher for just cause, with an appeal process streamlined to just 90 days. AFT President Randi Weingarten touts these contracts as evidence of her union’s commitment to reform, even as she talks up her union’s new professional development Web site, ShareMyLesson.com, as indicative of the AFT’s commitment to upgrading teaching.

This isn’t the Chicago way, unfortunately. There, the mayor made clear from the start he had no interest in working with the teachers, and the teachers reacted as angry and aggrieved partisans. If this war within the Democratic Party spreads beyond Chicago, it doesn’t augur well for the future of education or the party.  If Democrats are bent on committing suicide, the Emanuel mode of union-busting looks like a fine place to start.

meyersonh@washpost.com