If striking Chicago teachers agree to the new contract framework hammered out with school board officials, perhaps no one will be happier than President Barack Obama, who calls the windy city home.
The increasingly polarized issue of public education threatened to split the Democratic party from one if its biggest bases of support, potentially hurting Obama's campaign. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has been a key Obama fundraiser and was Obama's former White House chief of staff, took a hard line against the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), receiving unsolicited praise for his stance from Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan and private-education champion Rupert Murdoch.
The Chicago strike came just months after Wisconsin voters rejected a recall of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who controversially limited the collective bargaining rights of teachers unions, and at a time when both elected Democrats and Republicans are seeking new ways to reform K-12 education, including charter schools and privatization.
The teachers walked out after rejecting the Chicago Public Schools' (CPU) contract proposal, which, among other things, would require teachers to be evaluated based on student's test scores.
"This is no way to measure the effectiveness of an educator," CTU President Karen Lewis said Sept. 8. "Further, there are too many factors beyond our control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control."
As the third largest school district in the nation, the Chicago school system has struggled for decades to meet the demands of its population. According to a report by CPS, 87 percent of the students enrolled come from low-income families. Plagued with nearly $700 million in debt and the low test scores of students, both the CTU and CPS agrees that changes need to be made. That didn't stop the union from walking out of schools last Monday, which Emanuel criticized as "a strike of choice," while pointing out that the median annual salary for Chicago public school teachers is $67,974.
“This is totally unnecessary, it’s avoidable and our kids do not deserve this,” Emanuel said.
As in Wisconsin, CTU and its supporters have cast the strike as a defining moment. "Chicago was the birthplace of this neoliberal corporate reform agenda of high-stakes testing, paying teachers based on test scores, closing failing neighborhood—disinvesting in neighborhood schools and then closing them and turning them over to charter schools," said Professor of Education and Policy Studies at University of Illinois, Chicago Pauline Lipman to Democracy Now. "Chicago is now an epicenter of the pushback against it."
Meanwhile, Obama has remained neutral, despite previous ties to the CTU and his promise to the unions in a 2007 campaign speech that he would "walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States."
The strike has presented a dilemma for Obama. Teachers Unions have long supported Democrats; during the 2008 election cycle, they contributed over $5 million to Democratic Candidates. On the other side of the negotiating table is his former chief of staff, who is expected to play a critical role in his campaign fundraising in the next few months, wooing big money donors who can write big checks to Priorities USA Action, the super PAC that's supporting Obama.
Republicans have wasted no time capitalizing on Obama's difficult position in this debate, and at a fundraiser in Oregon on Sept. 10 Paul Ryan called for Obama to take a side.
"And so, we were going to ask, where does President Obama stand? Does he stand with his former Chief of Staff Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with the children and the parents, or does he stand with the union? On issues like this, we need to speak out and be really clear," Ryan said.
For their part, Democrats might be taking teacher union support for granted. Salon Magazine reported that the DNC began with a surprising afront to public educators, when the convention chairman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, made an appearance at a screening of "Won't Turn Back," which casts public school teachers in an unfavorable light and celebrates efforts of parents to take over public schools.