Karen Lewis CTU

New York Times columnist David Brooks doesn’t live in Chicago—he did attend the University of Chicago and work as a police reporter for the City News Bureau—but it’s still remarkable how wrong he gets Rahm Emanuel’s performance in the Chicago school strike, now one school-week old and getting older (for parents) every minute.

“Both sides are giving ground,” Brooks writes, “but, as best as I can tell, Emanuel has successfully preserved the core of his reform agenda.” Among the planks of that “reform agenda,” Brooks mentions “rigorous teacher evaluations [that] will give reformers a profound measuring tool.” Not quite; it appears instead that teacher evaluation is in the process of being seriously watered down.

If anyone deserves the word "success" attached to her name, it’s Chicago Teachers Union President and Rahm nemesis Karen Lewis, who is winning—if not hands down, then almost. And she’s apparently winning not only on the sticky issue of teacher evaluations, but perhaps also on “recall rights for laid-off teachers,” which translates into the right of principals to hire the teachers they judge to be the strongest for their classrooms. If the union gets much of what it wants on those two complex issues alone, it guarantees not too much change in the system, which, as Brooks notes, has a 40 percent dropout rate and an even sadder statistic—only “8 percent of 11th graders meet college readiness standards.”

As far as I can tell, Mayor Emanuel is doing just what Rich Daley has been criticized for doing: giving the union much of what it wants. During the reign of his successor, Daley has been portrayed as a kicking-the-can-down-the-road wimp who declined to deal honestly with deficits. During Daley’s 22-year tenure there were no teachers’ strikes. Emanuel is flirting with giving up basics that threaten to preserve the status quo. He’s also not saying how CPS will pay for a 16 percent teachers’ raise over four years at a cost of $320 million, no increase in the family health insurance rates, and salaries for the 400 teachers he promised before the strike, in order to make his longer school day palatable to the CTU.

Brooks seems to have retained his infatuation with our mayor; today’s column is not the first time that the writer has gotten almost misty-eyed over the former Obama chief-of-staff who fed the columnist tidbits from the White House. Just as Rahm left Washington to return here to run for mayor, Brooks described him as “a full human being, rich and fertile from the inside out” and also as “an urban cowboy.” In another column, shortly before the election that made Rahm mayor, Brooks described Rahm in his jeans and leather jacket campaigning on an “icy Chicago street,” “hugging” potential voters who “wrap… him in an embrace.”

It would be interesting if Brooks were to come here and spend some time observing and talking to  Lewis. He won’t find her wearing a leather jacket and jeans or running down an icy Chicago street, but he might find her interesting, and he might come to understand the dynamics of what can only be described as a lose/lose strike.

Another note: Teachers picketed yesterday in front of a Hyatt hotel to denounce Penny Pritzker, a member of the family that founded the hotel chain as well as Obama’s former financial guru and almost, in his first term, commerce secretary. CTU members object to her being on the CPS board and to her family’s treatment of housekeepers in its hotels. It epitomizes how the sides are confused in this strike—Romney and Ryan giving atta boys to Rahm; President Obama supporting charter schools with their nonunion faculties and other favorites of school reformers.

One thing is certain: Pritzker is keeping a much lower profile in 2012 than she did in 2008, and she will never serve in Obama’s cabinet.


Photograph: Chicago Tribune