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At center of Chicago’s teacher strife: Rahm Emanuel

We offer three items of interest regarding pugnacious Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose political capital is being tested on a national stage as Chicago’s teachers walk picket lines.

The teachers' strike in Chicago has educators facing off against the city's pugnacious mayor.
REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

Found while reporting a Chicago teachers’-strike story to appear in this space soon: Three items of interest regarding pugnacious Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose political capital is being tested on a national stage as the 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union walk picket lines.

Rahm Emanuel

President Barack Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Emanuel are all Chicagoans, worked together in the Obama White House during the administration’s first two years and share major elements of an education-reform agenda thrown into the spotlight by the strike. According to the a profile of Emanuel in the April issue of the Atlantic, however, the mayor blames his current woes in part on Duncan’s tenure as the city’s schools overlord:

“Rahm is still steaming about the contracts negotiated by [former Mayor Richard M.] Daley and Arne Duncan — who was then running CPS and is now the nation’s education secretary — which gave teachers hefty pay increases and a shorter school year. ‘I know what the teachers got, and I know what the politicians got,’ he says, meaning no strike. ‘But I don’t know what the kids got.’ ”

Emanuel, in case you’ve somehow missed these headlines, has demanded a longer school day and year, among other things, and faces a $3 billion deficit over the next three years.

Unhappy with CEO

Nor is Emanuel pleased with the current CPS CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard, whose management style was criticized by the school board in a June performance evaluation, according to the Chicago Tribune:

“The board gave Brizard low marks for the way he communicates and runs the district,” the paper reported. “ ‘The organizational effectiveness of CPS could be substantially improved with a more coherent and decisive management decision-making process,’ board President David Vitale wrote in a June 11 letter to Brizard that accompanied the review.”

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Emanuel is said to be vexed with Brizard’s sloppy handling of the aforementioned plan to lengthen the school day and year and with his decision to take two weeks off in July during a crucial interval in which a “fact-finding” arbiter was trying to craft a proposal to head off the current work stoppage.

For his part, Brizard has a history of clashing with labor. If things go badly for the mayor in the strike, he’d make a convenient scapegoat.

His children in prep school

Finally, the lives of Emanuel’s three children have not been disrupted by the strike. They attend an elite Hyde Park private school, the University of Chicago Lab School, formerly attended by first daughters Sasha and Malia Obama.

It doesn’t sound like the teachers at the pricey prep school would be any more willing to accept the evaluation schemes Chicago teachers are protesting, which would use student test scores to evaluate teachers. According to a piece in the pro-labor magazine In These Times that excerpts past postings on the school’s website, Director David Magill is no fan of the use of student performance data to measure learning, much less teachers’ capabilities.

Writing on the University of Chicago’s Lab School website two years ago, Magill noted, “Measuring outcomes through standardized testing and referring to those results as the evidence of learning and the bottom line is, in my opinion, misguided and, unfortunately, continues to be advocated under a new name and supported by the current [Obama] administration.”

Emanuel’s decision to send his kids to the Lab School, and his refusal to explain it to reporters at the time, made for some colorful fodder for his new adversary, the equally bodacious Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who issued a near giddy statement about the choice last fall.

“’The new mayor seems to recognize how school funding impacts school quality,’ ” Lewis said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “’We understand why he would choose a school with small class sizes, a broad, rich curriculum that offers world languages, the arts and physical education, a focus on critical thinking not test-taking, a teacher and an assistant in every elementary classroom and paid, high-quality professional development for their teachers. It’s wonderful that he has that option available to him.’ ”