Rahm Emanuel’s Ronald Reagan Moment
One can’t say that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel hasn’t aggressively embraced predecessor Richard M. Daley’s mantle as chief school reformer. Since becoming the top executive of the Second City, the former Wall Streeter, congressman, and Obama administration chief of staff has pushed tirelessly to expand the city’s collection of charter schools, argued for increasing the time students spend in school (and the time teachers spend in instruction), and has enacted a new set of rules allowing the district to use teacher performance data in layoff decisions. As a result, Emanuel has the opportunity to set a standard for reform-minded mayors the way predecessor Daley and Rahm’s soon-to-be outgoing counterpart in New York City, Michael Bloomberg, have done.
As you would expect none of this has sat well with the American Federation of Teachers’ Big Shoulders local, whose notoriously bellicose president, Karen Lewis, has spent the past couple of years unsuccessfully agitating for the roll-back of Daley’s reforms and has even less use for what Emanuel is offering. So she and the union have decided to use the labor union equivalent of the nuclear option: Threaten a strike. Earlier this week, the AFT got the consent of its membership to take such action if Emanuel doesn’t restore a scheduled four percent pay raise, boost pay by as much as 30 percent in the next step away from increasing the school day, and the rest of the union’s laundry list. But Lewis wants more than that. Betting that Emanuel won’t have Daley’s staying power, angling to eventually succeed Randi Weingarten as national AFT president, and hoping to catapult herself as a leading figure among education traditionalists reeling from the latest string of defeats (including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s landslide victory over the AFT- and NEA-led recall effort), Lewis is likely hoping that a successful stare down of Emanuel will once again make Chicago’s school district as servile as it was before Daley took control of it two decades ago.
Certainly this is a make or break moment for Emanuel. After all, neither he nor Daley have had to deal with an actual work stoppage. And Emanuel’s not alone. Although a smattering of districts in Oregon have had to deal with teachers’ union strikes, there have actually been few work stoppages since the 1960s, when the AFT and its legendary leader, Albert Shanker, launched a series of strikes in New York City that effectively led to it and the National Education Association becoming the leading forces in education policy for most of the past six decades. Between 1975 and 2004, the number of NEA and AFT strikes declined from 241 to just 15. Most districts with elected school board members, fearful of the public relations hit that strikes used to incur (and also concerned about keeping the campaign donations they got from union coffers), have been more than willing to simply grant NEA and AFT leaders the double-digit salary increases, strong job protections, and lavish pension deals that have made teaching the most-lucrative public-sector profession. Given the rarity of work stoppages in education, who knows how a mayor-controlled district would handle the challenge? And based on the city’s effort last week to oversee how Lewis’ union captains persuade (or strong-arm) members into voting their way, Rahm must be wondering how he’ll deal with it too.
Emanuel has already gotten the support of centrist Democrat reform allies such as Democrats for Education Reform, which bought radio time as part of an effort to pre-empt the AFT’s strike authorization vote. For good reason. Considering that AFT and NEA leaders fins centrist Democrat reform tactics as much a threat to their declining influence as those of Walker and other conservative and Republican reformers, an AFT victory in Chicago could offer them some tips to beat back their rivals in Democrat Party (and education) politics.
Yet for Emanuel (and for his fellow school reform-minded mayors and school leaders) the AFT’s strike threat is an important opportunity to transform American public education. By making the strong case that the union is merely defending policies and practices that do little to build brighter futures for Chicago’s kids, he could put the union on the defensive, enact even more aggressive reforms, and offer a new model for advancing reform on the ground.
Emanuel already has one advantage over the AFT: He isn’t dependent on its coffers or support for winning re-election. After all, the AFT bitterly opposed Emanuel’s successful run for mayor last year and would have preferred any of the motley crew of onetime political stars and ne’er-do-wells that competed against him for the top office. More importantly, the mayor can easily count on other donors and union allies (along with the considerable fortunes he and his famed talent agent brother have amassed) to win re-election so long as he doesn’t fail in handling snow cleanups and the quality-of-life aspects that come with running Second City government. Another advantage Emanuel has lies in the reality that the AFT (and the NEA) can no longer count on unquestioned support from other political circles. As in Wisconsin, Chicago families and other taxpayers are aware of the high costs they and their children bare from the array of seniority- and degree-based pay scales, near-lifetime employment privileges, and lavish pension annuities — including the $20 billion in teachers’ pension deficits and unfunded healthcare liabilities (as of 2011, according to the city’s teachers’ pension board) and the 22 percent increase in those deficits between 2006 and 2011. As a result, the AFT finds itself essentially arguing that it will stop working just because the mayor is not willing to sink the city and its citizens further into the hock just for the sake of a few (who, by the way, would still get a fairly sweet deal, including a 10 percent salary hike over a five-year period, and work just 45 more minutes a day, or fewer hours than peers in 15 other big-city districts, according to an analysis by the National Council on Teacher Quality).
Rahm can also point to the success, mixed as it is, of Chicago’s two-decade long reform effort itself. For all the criticism of late from the AFT and fellow-travelers such as once-respectable civil rights activist Jesse Jackson (who once again made a fool of himself on the school reform front courtesy of cable network CNN’s Web site) about the school closings that have happened under Daley’s watch (and for the well-deserved consequences of overstatements about the success of the reform efforts made by former city schools czar-turned-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and others) one can easily say that Second City’s schools are better than they were before mayoral control. Between 2003 and 2011, the percentage of Chicago fourth-graders who were functionally illiterate declined from 60 percent to 52 percent, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, while average reading score for a Chicago fourth-grade student increased by a full grade level; the percentage of fourth-graders who were innumerate declined from 50 percent to 32 percent in the same period.
Certainly the Second City hasn’t done enough to improve student achievement for young black men, and far too few Chicago students do well enough to complete college. But it’s hard to deny that the more students are graduating from Chicago schools than they did before Daley embarked on the reform of the district 17 years ago. And it’s even harder to deny that rolling back reform, as the AFT effectively proposes to do, will either help any of the Second City’s children achieve lifelong success or do anything to build up the city’s economy or society for the long term.
If anything, Emanuel can make the case that confronting the AFT to overhaul the failing practices and polices that that make it most-difficult to provide Second City kids with high-quality teaching. One reason why Chicago’s reform effort has been less-successful than that of New York City is because Daley and his school czars were more reluctant than their Big Apple counterparts to challenge reverse-seniority layoff rules and other policies defended by the AFT. It took fiscal issues faced by the Second City during the current economic malaise two years ago for Daley and his then-chief executive, Ron Huberman, finally moved to unilaterally ditch reverse-seniority layoffs and, instead, base reductions in force on performance. (A federal judge later ruled against the city’s move.) While the first round of reforms have had some success, Emanuel and schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard will have to challenge the very policies the AFT has long defended and worked to preserve in its contract with the city. And it will take more than the series of modest bromides that change nothing being offered up by the AFT in its recent round of white papers to truly provide Chicago kids with the cultures of genius they deserve.
Emanuel can immediately capture the rhetorical and moral high ground by articulating the compelling economic and social case for advancing a new round of reform — including reminding families that the Second City can’t move into first place unless it takes the next steps toward addressing the low quality of teaching and curricula that remains a reality in its classrooms. Such a case involves pointing out the report released earlier this year by Raj Chetty, John Friedman and Jonah Rockoff on the impact of high-quality teaching on the economic prospects of children, as well as starkly elaborating on how the current collective bargaining agreement (along with the state laws that often act as invisible hands in shaping those deals) makes it difficult to provide all children with those talented instructors.
Emanuel should also make clear that what he is doing is finally forcing the city to take responsibility for its own role in agreeing to the lavish pay and retirement deals that will burden taxpayers — including young teachers — for decades to come. Such honesty would not only be refreshing in general, but it would make clear that the city is behaving in a fiscal responsible manner for all citizens. He should also note that many of the teacher layoffs he and Daley have had to embark upon have come because it can no longer keep open half-empty schools. (Catalyst Chicago‘s own analysis of teacher layoffs would help his case.)
Rahm can also take advantage of the essential cowardice of the AFT’s timing of its strike threat. By waiting till summer — when most families aren’t paying attention — instead of during the school year (when it would inflict real damage) — the AFT has all but admitted that it can’t win any support effort to restore its former influence and keep a costly compensation system in place (and would even bring it further scrutiny to boot). Emanuel could go deep by offering an even less-attractive bargaining agreement featuring a much-smaller wage increase and more flexibility for the city to enact reforms without seeking the union’s consent. Or simply leave the current package in place and unilaterally extending the school day across all schools. Such a move would put the union in the tough position of having to launch a strike on the first day of school or back down and accede to Emanuel’s demands.
But rhetorical gamesmanship will only take Emanuel so far. The mayor must play upon his talent as a strong political campaigner by putting together a team akin to that being assembled by Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst in order to sell his reform plan during summer and fall. It’s not just enough to rally support from the Chicago Tribune‘s editorial board Emanuel also needs to do something that most reformers have failed to do: Embrace the grassroots. It would do Emanuel and his team a lot of good to meet with Black Star Project founder (and Dropout Nation contributor) Phillip Jackson and develop a program that would address the city’s continuing struggles to address the impact of the nation’s education crisis on young black men; this is something Emanuel’s counterpart, Bloomberg, has already done in the Big Apple by teaming up with George Soros’ Open Society Foundations (which is also funding the Black Star Project’s Chitown efforts). Chatting up Parent Power groups such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options would also help.
Meanwhile Emanuel can also take a strong stand for Parent Power and school choice — as well as address more-reasonable complaints about school closures that the AFT has played upon — by enacting a Parent Trigger provision, allowing those families who want to overhaul the very schools in their own neighborhoods to do so. This would not only empower parents and win Emanuel more allies, it would also take a rhetorical play out of the AFT’s hands. Given that the embarrassment the national AFT and Weingarten suffered last year after Dropout Nation revealed a presentation on how its Connecticut affiliate weakened the Nutmeg State’s law, such a move by Emanuel would force the AFT to either go along (and further weaken its influence) or oppose the effort and put it in conflict with families who are demanding their rightful places as leaders in education decision-making.
Emanuel has an opportunity to advance reform by confronting the AFT’s strike threat head on. If he does it right, Chicago’s children and taxpayers will be better for it. And so will the school reform movement itself.