Chicago Strike Reveals Dearth of US Education Policy Supported by Both Major Parties

What's happening in Chicago is not likely to stay in Chicago.

What's happening in Chicago is not likely to stay in Chicago.

And--when what's happening is nearly 30,000 teachers on strike in the nation's third-largest public school district as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) stands its ground against what they consider a panoply of odious 'corporate-driven education reforms' and Tea Party champion turned Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan sides with Democratic Mayor Rahm Emmanuel (formerly Obama's White House chief of staff) against the union--the impact could be dramatic.

It's not surprising, given the strike's high profile, that the GOP vice presidential candidate would weigh in on the debate, but his comments on Monday night at fundraising event highlight that when it comes to education reform, the two major parties have come to a partial consensus that school reform should be done by sidelining teachers, not channeling their input.

"Rahm and I have not agreed on every issue or on a lot of issues, but Mayor Emanuel is right today in saying that this teachers' union strike is unnecessary and wrong," Ryan said in Portland, Oregon, according to CNN. "We know that Rahm is not going to support our campaign, but on this issue and this day we stand with Mayor Rahm Emanuel."

As In These Times reporter Mike Elk writes, the striking teachers in Chicago have "quickly changed the political conversation from Democrats vs. Republicans to how both parties attack unions."

"That's an awkward conversation Democrats don't want," says Elk.

And the Washington Postadds:

The labor dispute lays bare a Democratic Party with significant tensions over the direction of school reform. Major figures such as former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein have pressed for tougher teacher evaluations and an end to "last in, first out" hiring practices that are part of many union contracts. On the other side are labor leaders and other interests convinced that the reforms are union-busting by another name.

While Obama has maintained close ties to teachers, he has promoted policies many of them dislike. They include the Race to the Top grant competition, which rewards states for evaluating teachers in part by how well their students perform on standardized tests.

"There's frustration and growing resistance to these so-called reforms that are being pushed without any evidence that they work," said Lisa Guisbond, a policy analyst for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which is opposed to high-stakes tests.

Included in these contentious reforms, as Valerie Strauss lays out on the WaPo's Answer Sheet Blog, are "merit pay, an expansion of charter schools, teacher and principal assessment systems that are linked to student standardized test scores, a longer school day and job security for veteran teachers."

Strauss concludes: "This is not about whether or not you think the union should have called a strike as it did on Monday, but rather about the central problemwith the reforms that Emanuel has been advocating: There's no real proof that they systemically work, and in some cases, there is strong evidence that they may be harmful."

This argument is echoed by In These Times columnist David Moberg, who says "at its heart" the teachers strike in Chicago "is over the union's deep opposition to what it calls a "corporate reform agenda" that pursues a competitive or punitive relationship with teachers, rather than a collaborative one."

And Moberg adds:

CTU has [...] pushed for smaller classes, enriched curriculum, better supplies and facilities, fairer and fuller funding (including the return of some public revenue long diverted into "TIFs" to subsidize developers), more counselors and support staff, respect for teacher professionalism, and a bigger say for teachers in their schools.

That clash puts the union at odds with CPS, the mayor and President Obama--whose education secretary, Arne Duncan, boosted the corporate-reform agenda as former Mayor Richard M. Daley's school superintendent. It also represents a more forceful rejection of such reforms than espoused by the national union, which nonetheless supports the CTU strike.

Unfortunately, CTU's leaders have not pierced effectively through the cloud of misinformation coming from the mayor and allies (including groups with a financial stake in charter schools) to make clear what they're for and against. Also, a new state law limits the union's ability to negotiate many of the most important policy issues.

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