The strike by Chicago teachers continues. It is a hardship for parents and one more tough break for the students in Chicago's public schools, some 40 percent of whom drop out before graduating high school. Equally unfortunate are the 20 percent who do graduate but are still functionally illiterate. But the strike is also an opportunity for some, including Mayor Rahm Emmanuel who famously said that, in politics, you never want to let a good crisis go to waste.
Neither side seems especially concerned about the money – a 16 percent raise, over 4 years – and perhaps, one thinks, there isn't any reason they should be. Chicago and Illinois have long since lost control over their finances. Nobody knows how they will meet their existing unfunded pension liabilities. No point in getting jammed up over another few billion.
The crux of this dispute, then, seems to be teacher evaluations. The Chicago Teacher's Union claims that the system being proposed for determining teacher effectiveness might result in the dismissal of some 30 percent of its membership. The proposed system, the union argues, relies too heavily on standardized tests and
too many factors beyond our control ... impact how well some students perform on standardized tests such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control.
These "factors" are beyond the control, also, of Mayor Emmanuel who does, however, control the political apparatus that has allowed them to fester and grow until they have become the givens of urban life. And the teachers are, in fact, complicit. Their union dues have helped fund the campaigns of politicians – among them, Mayor Emmanuel – who are the architects of our modern urban woes, to include the Chicago public school system. The teachers' dues go to elect the people who give them raises without demanding proof of professional competence in return.
So if there is opportunity in crisis, what form does it take? One suspects that Mayor Emmanuel knows that teachers' unions are experiencing a loss of public esteem and that he can score a political win if he settles the strike without giving in on teacher accountability. And it would be helpful to President Obama if he could find a way to "bring the parties together." Who knows? It is easy, these days, to be insufficiently cynical in evaluating the politics of these things.
Of all the Democratic party constituents, the teachers' unions would surely be the last to suspect that they would be thrown under the bus. And it seems exceedingly unlikely that they would not fight back. Hard.