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The Politics of the Chicago Teachers' Strike

I will weigh in on the substantive issues in the Chicago strike next week if it has not been settled by then.  But here, in this blog, I offer a few reflections on the circular (dog bites man bites dog) character of the politics of the strike.

If I were among President Obama's political advisors, I would be working overtime to get this strike settled and off the front pages.  Steve Sawchuk reports in Education Week that other national unions are making common cause with the Chicago teachers and teachers unions from other states are joining in, too.  This must be a nightmare for the President's campaign staff.  Not only is Chicago the President's hometown, the mayor was his Chief of Staff and is now heading his Super-PAC.  There is no way that he can fade into the woodwork as this fight intensifies.  Sawchuk reports that key figures in the strike leadership are taking off their Re-elect Obama signs.  If the strike is not resolved quickly, Obama could lose a growing number of union votes, and he cannot afford to lose any votes at all.  The strike could cost him the election.

But Sawchuk also notes that, by all reports, the key issue dividing the mayor and the union is not, as previously reported, pay and reinstatement, classic union bread-and-butter issues, but rather the city's position on teacher evaluation, specifically what proportion of a teacher's formal evaluation will be based on improvements in student test scores statistically attributable to the teacher.  It turns out that Chicago wants a higher percentage based on student test scores than is required under a new state law.

Guess what?  That state law was passed in response to what amounts to a requirement for such laws laid down by the Obama administration for states wishing to get federal Race to the Top funds.  The very policy that the teachers are most furiously opposed to is not just Rahm Emanuel's policy.  It is core Obama administration policy.  The mayor is carrying the water for the Obama administration's education reform strategy, and, in doing so, may be undermining the very reelection effort to which the Mayor is personally very committed.

All of which lays bare the essential contradictions in the administration's policies on teachers and their unions.  The administration has ardently and successfully advocated a reform agenda that teachers and their unions see as anti-teacher.  They have been successful in this advocacy because a tough-minded stance on teacher evaluations is one of only a tiny handful of issues on which the administration can find common ground with Republicans around the country.  Indeed, I suspect that one reason that the administration has been so ardent in their embrace of this reform is precisely because they know that they can get Republican support for it.

I can only imagine what the Republican party strategists must be thinking right now.  Here we have succeeded at getting the President to embrace this reform and, guess what, by doing so we have not only succeeded in greatly weakening rank and file teacher support for the Democrats, but, wonder of wonders, we may have in Chicago an instrument for bringing down the President's whole reelection campaign without lifting a finger.  Whoa!

But we should also consider the scene from the vantage point of the Chicago Teachers Union.  The strike may not be an accident of timing.  It is possible that the union leadership was very much aware that a Chicago strike would pose a real threat to the President's reelection campaign and decided to go on strike precisely because they figured that the President's people would put enormous pressure on the Mayor to settle the strike on terms favorable to the union, as quickly as possible.  

But wouldn't it be an irony if that was the union's strategy and the strategy succeeds and the result was the election of President Romney!  If the unions have doubts about President Obama, wait until they see the whites of the eyes of President Romney, who, to put it mildly, is no friend of the teachers unions.  It was, after all, candidate Romney, not President Obama, who published on his web site proposals to convert the big federal programs for support of poor, minority and handicapped students into voucher programs.  If there is one policy proposal that teachers hate above all others, it is voucher programs.  To win the war in Chicago and contribute to the election of President Romney as a consequence would be the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory for the unions.

But I haven't run out of political ironies yet.  Cokie Roberts made the point on NPR the other day that the Obama reelection strategy rests on signing up the vast majority of Latino and Black voters.  If they succeed in that, Roberts pointed out, they only need 38 percent of white voters.  And that would work, because, although they have lost the majority of white men, they have a majority of white women.  But the leader of the Chicago Teachers Union leader is an African American woman, and a lot of her members are African American women, too.  How will it look to the President's team after the election if they lose because they adopted an education reform strategy designed to get Republicans on board and in the process lost the constituency they were counting on to get another four years in office?

What to do?  If Rahm Emanuel backs down precipitously, the Republicans can and will charge that he sacrificed "education reform" to get the Obama campaign out of a tight spot.  If he does not back down, he puts the campaign in a tight spot.  Finding the sweet spot will not be easy.

Not that anyone asked, but I believe that the administration's teacher evaluation policies are wrong substantively and perilous politically.  Sure, we have to do a better job of evaluating teachers, but that is a sideshow. It is time to stop in its tracks the idea that our education problems will be solved by getting rid of bad teachers and time to do what we have to do to fill our schools with great teachers: recruiting them from the top of our high school classes, training them well, paying them well, and giving them the data and resources they need to intervene and support struggling students. It is time to recognize that teachers are not the enemy, but the solution.  Tough-minded accountability systems that force teachers into their bunkers make great campaign rhetoric but they are lousy policy, and, increasingly, lousy politics.

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