A Watershed for Democrats and Unions - The Chicago strike shows that school reform is no longer a partisan issue.
The Chicago teachers strike moved toward settlement over the weekend, but fell short. A question hanging over the negotiations: What has the strike really been about? From the press coverage, it seemed that if you asked 30 teachers why they were picketing, you'd get 30 different reasons. The economic differences and the noneconomic issues (regarding teacher evaluation and job security) were of a type that has been resolved elsewhere without a strike.
No, this strike feels more about attitude—"the mayor doesn't respect us"—than substance. And from the details of the proposed settlement that have been made public so far, both sides will make modest concessions that will leave their supporters somewhat disappointed.
In the long run, much more important than the settlement's specifics will be the fact that the strike occurred, especially during a presidential campaign in a city governed by the president's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. The Democrats and teachers unions traditionally have walked in lock step—so much so that, when I became schools chancellor in New York City shortly after serving in the Clinton administration, my former colleagues offered commiserations that went something like this: "Unfortunately our party is killing you, isn't it? We should be for the kids but, truth is, we're beholden to the unions."
The Democrats-teachers union alliance has been quietly changing over the past few years, but not without resistance and obfuscation. For a long time, unions and their allies have tried to portray reformers who supported greater accountability for teachers and more choices for families as part of a right-wing fringe out to "privatize" public schools, or privateers out to make money off children. Even known Democrats like Bill Gates and Eli Broad—who have given generously to support school improvement—were vilified as members of a "billionaires' boys club." Some critics suggested that philanthropists supported charter schools or firing bad teachers because they harbored a secret wish to open private schools that could make them another fortune.
Most Americans don't follow the inside game of school reform and don't know that it wasn't just Republican governors who were fighting the unions. So was a group long considered to be hard-core union allies: Democratic mayors.
In addition to Michael Bloomberg of New York (formally an Independent but at heart on most issues a Democrat), Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, Cory Booker of Newark, Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, and Kevin Johnson of Sacramento have enthusiastically embraced reforms that unions opposed. The notion that these leaders want to "privatize" public education or are "disrespectful" of the teaching profession doesn't pass the laugh test.
To this list of big-city mayors now add Mr. Emanuel, maybe the most significant of all. He is from the heart of Obamaland—like the president, a Chicago politician who grew up deep inside the Democratic machine. Mr. Emanuel's willingness to be out front on school reform publicly signaled what insiders have long known: The president and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have implemented policies—such as insisting on rigorous evaluations of principals and teachers, closing failing schools, and supporting charter schools—that are aligned with those of the reformers.
The administration has avoided calling attention to its reformist inclinations during the election season, not wanting to alienate unions and teachers. But Mr. Emanuel decided to broadcast this fresh direction by not cutting any last-minute deals and letting the strike unfold—immediately following the Democratic convention, where harmony had reigned and the party emerged united. The Chicago teachers must have been stunned, almost as surprised as they were to find that the liberal media voices who are usually so reliable in supporting unions did not join them at the barricades.
Mayor Emanuel is not known for his soft-spoken manner. Even if he has to make some compromises in the strike settlement, the fact that he engaged in a standoff with the teachers union sounded a loud and encouraging note: School reform is increasingly and unashamedly becoming less of a partisan issue.