As the Chicago teachers strike drags on, clear battle lines are emerging, with big-city mayors — including prominent Democrats — rallying to the side of Rahm Emanuel in his bitter showdown with organized labor.
The mayors of the nation's two largest cities, along with former D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, in recent days weighed in with words of support for Mr. Emanuel, Chicago mayor and former chief of staff for President Obama.
Chicago teachers walked off the job Monday for the first time in 25 years, potentially putting hundreds of thousands of children on the streets in one of the nation's most dangerous and violent cities.
The unrest in the Windy City, and the growing willingness of Democrats to publicly take on teachers unions, highlights a growing discord between the party and its loyalists in organized labor, particularly educators.
Prominent Democrats are now openly pushing their brethren to take on the powerful and influential teachers unions.
"Rahm Emanuel — I would encourage him to do even more. I commend him for doing as much as he is," Mr. Fenty, a Democrat and a noted critic of unions and teacher-tenure systems, told National Public Radio on Wednesday. "I have a big problem with politicians who know this is the right thing to do, but fail to come to the side of Rahm Emanuel and others who are willing to go out on a limb and put their careers on the line."
A key sticking point between the two sides in Chicago is the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations, a measure supported by many public officials but vehemently rejected by labor and other critics who argue that classroom leaders in low-income areas — populated by students who traditionally score lower on standardized tests — get a raw deal.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, told reporters earlier this week that the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which he chairs, "unanimously supports student growth over time as a measurement of teachers."
"These aren't radical notions," he said. "... the public wants to see more accountability."
Speaking on CNN on Tuesday, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent mayor who has had his own high-profile clashes with teachers unions, echoed those sentiments and said America's public schools shouldn't put the desires of its employees above the needs of children.
"Our school system should not be run for the people who work there," he said. "Our school system should be run for the students."
Test scores as a part of teacher evaluation are already in place in New York, Los Angeles, the District of Columbia, and other districts across the country.
The Obama administration has also come down in favor of the idea, making it a part of the White House's signature education initiative, Race to the Top. The popular program offers grants to states and districts to help improve struggling schools, but only if standardized test scores are factored into teacher reviews.
The Chicago dispute underscores the island teachers unions now find themselves on as they lose the unequivocal backing of many in the Democratic Party, said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a D.C. education think tank.
"Who's in their corner? They've got nobody," he said. "The strike is definitely exposing some of the rifts within the Democratic Party and making them worse. You do see the unions more isolated than ever before."
Union leaders point out that other factors beyond evaluations are also at play. Chicago teachers are seeking a 30 percent pay raise over the next several years, and have also demanded better facilities; specifically, air conditioning in every classroom.
"Collective action was the only way improve their schools, their communities and their students' education," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said earlier this week. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is a subsidiary of the AFT.
"We know that the members of the CTU are prepared to stay on the picket lines," she continued. "We also know they would rather be on the job, in the classroom educating their students. ... The students, teachers and educational support staff -- and the city of Chicago — deserve a school system that works for everyone. In the end, that is what this strike is all about."
In years past, some analysts say, leaders such as Mr. Emanuel, Mr. Villaraigosa and Mr. Bloomberg could simply settle their differences with the union by doling out cash. If, for example, mayors or school administrators wanted to implement a controversial teacher-evaluation system, they could persuade the union to agree to it by raising salaries, said Mr. Petrilli, the Fordham Institute analyst.
"The way you got unions to sign off on the reforms you want without going to the point of a strike is to buy them off," he said. "But districts are broke. They no longer have the money to buy off unions."
The dire financial situation of local and state governments has led to bold attempts to forever change the balance of power in public schools. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, mounted the first challenge to the collective-bargaining power of teachers, a success that drew the ire of labor across the nation.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, also a Republican, followed suit, though voters later rejected his proposals through referendum.
Going forward, Mr. Petrilli said, more leaders — whether they be Republicans or Democrats — may realize there is another option beyond giving union teachers more money or risking a strike.
"In many cases, there's more running room than they think they have," he said. "But it takes some political calculation. You have to put yourself out there and become vulnerable."
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