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Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune

Plenty of ink and megabytes will be spilled over the implications of the move by the American Federation of Teachers’ Chicago affiliate’s work stoppage. From questions about how it will affect what is increasingly a not-so-mutually convenient relationship between the AFT and National Education Association and a Democratic National Committee increasingly dominated by the school reform movement, to whether it could affect President Barack Obama’s re-election prospects, to even if New York City (the epicenter of the famed AFT strike five decades ago that helped teachers’ union gain dominion over education policy), everyone will say their piece while the union and the nation’s third-largest district spar over the direction of education in the Big Shoulders city. [Yours truly offers more of this thoughts today in the pages of the New York Times‘ Room for Debate.]

But for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, there is a new question that has now arisen: How do you provide education — and more importantly, high-quality teaching and curricula — to the Second City’s 404,151 children? While it is quite likely that the strike will only last until September 21, when Chicago AFT rank-and-file miss their paychecks (which will mean that the affiliate will also miss its dues payments), it could last longer. While Emanuel and Chief Executive Officer Jean-Claude Brizard are still providing kids with school meals and safe places to stay during the day through the city’s 147 Children’s First centers, none of this will substitute for instructional days (although given the low quality of some of Chicago’s teachers, many kids may not be missing much at all).

This need not be a complication. In fact, the strike offers Emanuel an opportunity to move away from a traditional district model that no longer works for either Second City children or for the taxpayers who continue to sustain it. Embracing what Dropout Nation calls the Hollywood Model of Education — moving toward a system of charters, DIY schools operated by families and communities, and even online and blended learning options — would be an important step in providing all ChiTown kids with high-quality education.

Certainly the school reform effort that Emanuel oversees, which began under predecessor Richard M. Daley, has helped more Chicago kids get better teaching and curricula. 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.

But it hasn’t been an unquestioned success. The Second City hasn’t done enough to improve student achievement for young black men, or young men of any race; in fact the gender achievement gaps in Chicago’s schools remains one of the most-critical problems that neither Emanuel or Daley (or their respective school czars, including current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan) have failed to address. As the Consortium on Chicago School Research pointed out in a study released last year, the city’s high school students are still not equipped to do well in college and career. And the fact that neither Daley nor Emanuel have been willing to end Zip Code Education policies by eliminating school zoning rules (thus allowing even poor families on the South Side to send their kids to better-performing schools in the rest of the city) remains inexcusable.

Meanwhile the district is ill-equipped to address the dropout crisis it has fostered by helping ex-dropouts return to school to get their diplomas and get the comprehensive, college-preparatory education they need for success on the college campus. This isn’t surprising. As Dropout Nation noted last year, the traditional district model isn’t built for such a task despite its gargantuan scale. The fact that AFT and NEA affiliates would rather see guidance counselors lose their jobs during layoffs than rank-and-file teachers (who make up the largest percentages of membership) also makes it easy for districts such as Chicago to not focus on the need for additional help for students who need it most.

Meanwhile this week’s strike has pointed to one of the biggest problems Emanuel face in his efforts: The reality that the Chicago AFT affiliate will continue to push against any advance of systemic reform. It is one reason why predecessor Daley was largely reluctant to make the strong pushes against reverse-seniority layoff policies and for restricting which teachers get near-lifetime employment that counterparts such as Michael Bloomberg in New York City and Frank Jackson in Cleveland have done. Every step Emanuel takes will involve a fight, especially since Chicago AFT boss Karen Lewis wants a major victory in order to bolster her own ambitions (and help the AFT and other education traditionalists gain a victory after a string of defeats).

The strike also hits upon the reality that for all but a few Chicago families, there is no other school option other than the traditional district, which can be shut down at the whim of an AFT affiliate unwilling to embrace performance-based evaluations and new approaches to compensation. Save for the families of the 52,000 kids attending the Second City’s 119 charter schools (and those attending private and parochial schools run by the Archdiocese of Chicago and other organizations), most parents are beholden to the antics of a union whose strike would be illegal if it were done by mothers and dads subject to compulsory school laws.

Yet Emanuel can  take some steps to help those families — and build a new public school system in the process — by looking beyond the traditional district model. He already has the bones to do this thanks to predecessor Daley’s Renaissance 2010 initiative to launch new charter schools in the city, as well as the Children’s First centers put in place for the strike. Some of the organizations the city is working with are already equipped to provide tutoring and teaching to students under their watch. Emanuel should strike agreements with these groups, along with organizations such as the Black Star Project (which is also involved in similar learning efforts) to provide DIY education services to these kids. Emanuel should also announce a new version of Renaissance 2010, teaming up with charter school operators — including major outfits such as KIPP as well as with local operators — to launch another 100 new charters in the city to open by year-end; this includes leasing existing school space to the operators in order for them to get started quickly. [Such a move, by the way, would put pressure on the Chicago AFT, which isn’t interested in the district losing its near-monopoly over education services.]

The next step would involve Emanuel and Brizard teaming up with outfits such as Rocketship Education, as well as initiatives being started by School of One founder Joel Rose and former Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation honcho Tom Vander Ark to provide blended and online learning options throughout the Second City. Starting with the Children’s First centers, the city could quickly fill in the gap left by the AFT strike and provide kids with high-quality teaching and curricula they need. Certainly it won’t be easy to do in such short time. But it can be done — and executed well.

By walking out on Second City kids, the AFT’s Chicago affiliate has inadvertently handed Emanuel a new opportunity to take a different approach to reform. And the end of the traditional district model can mean high-quality education for Chicago kids who deserve better than what they are getting now.

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