On Thursday, Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said she hoped that negotiations would end in a deal by Monday. After all, 350,000 public school students need to return to class.
The union called a strike earlier this week after a contract negotiation with school administrators over pay, evaluation, and benefits failed after eight months of talks. Teachers are outraged over a proposed longer school day without extra pay, the denial of a four percent pay raise, and greater weight given to the role of student test scores on teacher evaluations.
Chicago has such strong ties to the Obama Administration that inevitably some political spillover, especially in the debates, will occur. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel served as Obama’s Chief of Staff. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan served as Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools before serving in Obama’s cabinet. And, of course, Obama lived in Chicago before he became president.
The great risk to President Obama is that there are four million teachers, and that's a lot of votes.
Analysts point out that Obama can do very little as president, but he is in a reelection year. Teacher unions are some of his strongest supporters—both with votes and donations in the form of Super PACs. Many of his education reforms, however, are opposed by them.
So far, Obama or Duncan haven’t said anything about the strike. But Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney has stepped into the fray.
Romney released a statement this week saying, “I am disappointed by the decision of the Chicago Teachers Union to turn its back on not only a city negotiating in good faith but also the hundreds of thousands of children relying on the city’s public schools to provide them a safe place to receive a strong education. Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet.”
Harley Shaiken, a professor at UC Berkley's Graduate School of Education, told NPR this week that the strike must be short in order to prevent harm to Obama. Otherwise, the stakes could get high.
“If it’s a longer strike, the Republicans are certainly going to hammer away an attack on public sector unions in general, and the Chicago teachers will be exhibit A,” Shaiken said on NPR.
Meanwhile, Diane Ravitch, an education professor and historian at NYU, said fallout will occur even if a resolution happens quickly. In the same NPR show, Ravitch said, “The great risk to President Obama is that there are four million teachers, and that's a lot of votes. They all have family members who vote. And I believe they'll end up voting, but not with the enthusiasm that they had, and that makes a difference in terms of how many people go to the polls.”
Teachers unions have been opposed to the Obama’s Administration’s education reforms for months, but the Chicago strike is the first time this opposition has been highlighted on such a national level. Unions disagree with teacher evaluations tied to student academic achievement. They also want principals to hire only laid-off union members to fill job openings.
As The Harvard Crimson pointed out this week, the current public school system is broken and needs change.
“It’s time to roll up our sleeves and prepare to get our hands dirty,” Riley K. Carney, a Crimson editorial writer, wrote, “Education is the most important investment we can make as a society. It will take hard work, collaboration, and sacrifices on the part of every player involved, but they are sacrifices worth making.”