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How to Prevent the Next Strike? Elect a School Board

Emanuel and Lightfoot both faced walkouts early in their first terms. That may be less commonplace with a board of CPS parents.

A sign spotted on the picket line outside Von Steuben Metropolitan High School on the second day of the CTU strike.   Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

Chicago teacher strikes have a way of getting personal. Before the last strike, in 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel allegedly shouted “Fuck you, Lewis” during a private meeting over a longer school day with Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis. Lewis responded by publicly calling the mayor “a liar and a bully.” And then there was the teacher who carried a sign reading “RAHM EMANUEL LIKES NICKELBACK.”

This time, a teacher is picketing with a “LORI NEEDS A LIGHTFOOT UP HER ASS” sign. The mayor has also been accused of not liking malört.

Maybe the strikes are so personal because they pit a union against a chief executive who exercises complete control over the schools — an authority won for the office by Richard M. Daley in 1995. An autocrat is an obvious target for insults and discontent.

It may be no coincidence that both Emanuel and Lightfoot faced teacher strikes early in their first terms. As some education wonks have surmised, the CTU likes to test incoming mayors.

Yesterday, former CPS CEO and mayoral candidate Paul Vallas opined in Crain’s Chicago Business that the strike is “in part a union leadership power play to demonstrate to the mayor who’s boss,” and to “draw national attention on the CTU leadership by making what they characterize as social-justice demands.”

In the Education Post, CPS grad Taneesha People wrote that she supports the strike’s goals, but thinks it’s happening because “the CTU is salty because they put almost $300,000 into Toni Preckwinkle’s mayoral campaign for her to suffer an embarrassing loss to Lori Lightfoot.

“Now,” she continued, "they’re trying to hit Lori with the big payback, make her answer for years of negotiations gone left with the former mayor, Rahm Emanuel…”

Maybe teacher strikes would be less acrimonious — and less commonplace — if Chicago had an elected school board, like 90 percent of the districts in this country. During the mayoral campaign, both Lightfoot and her opponent, Toni Preckwinkle, supported that long fought–for progressive goal. Lightfoot wanted to ensure that board members have “skin in the game,” she said, possibly by requiring them to first serve on local school councils.

When it comes to public schools, mayors almost never have skin in the game. No Chicago mayor in modern memory has sent a child to a Chicago Public School. Lightfoot’s daughter attends a parochial school. Emanuel’s children went to the University of Chicago Laboratory School. All Daleys go to Catholic schools. Harold Washington didn’t have any children. (Preckwinkle would have broken this pattern. Her son, Kyle, attended Kenwood Academy.)

There’s almost always a class divide in labor negotiations, but at least in the GM-UAW strike, currently in its sixth week, the executives use the product their company produces. They drive Cadillacs, not Audis. Elected school board members might be more eager than mayors to meet the needs of their own children’s teachers.

Out in the suburbs, where schools are run by elected bodies made up of district parents, the schools boards function as separate governments. They decide how much residents pay in school property taxes. 

In Chicago, property tax hikes get blamed on the mayor, who has a much different political calculation to make than a suburban Board of Ed trustee. Losing an unpaid school board seat because you raised your neighbors’ taxes is no big deal. Losing the mayoralty of Chicago could end a politician’s career.

Nonetheless, as soon as she was inaugurated, Lightfoot fired Emanuel’s school board and installed her own members. She owns the success of the schools, and she owns this strike.

This is Lightfoot’s first labor dispute as mayor. So far, it’s not going well for her. On Monday, she set negotiations back with an ill-considered letter asking teachers to go back to work without a new contract, thereby sacrificing all their leverage.

“We ask CTU to stay at the bargaining table and accelerate the pace, but end the strike and encourage your members to come back to work,” Lightfoot wrote. “Our students and families should not continue to bear this burden. The CPS team will continue to negotiate in good faith and with the same sense of urgency, and we can close out the remaining issues with our students in class.”

Today, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren visited Chicago to join picketing teachers at Oscar De Priest Elementary School on the West Side. Symbolically, that political gesture paints Lightfoot in contrast as the cold-hearted boss denying teachers the money, support, and working conditions they deserve.

That might not have bothered Rahm Emanuel, an autocrat from the corporate wing of the Democratic Party. But it should bother Lightfoot, who ran as a progressive promising to invest in Chicago’s forgotten neighborhoods.

On Monday, another sign spotted on the picket line at Von Steuben high school labeled the figures in the pointing Spiderman meme as RAHM and LIGHTFOOT — suggesting, for the uninitiated, that they’re two sides of the same coin. That should bother Lightfoot, too. But what should really bother her, and everyone else in Chicago, is that a single elected official can personify the country’s third-largest school district.

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