THE BLOG
10/01/2012 06:45 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

The War on Chicago Teachers

I understand why Michelle Rhee, in her September 27 op-ed piece in the Washington Post, ignored reality and chose to frame the recent Chicago teachers strike as an epic battle between a heroic mayor fighting on behalf of public school kids and a selfish union boss unconcerned about those same students and their daily struggles.

It's a simple refrain, equally simple variations of which have allowed Rhee to parlay her three years as a teacher (and zero time as a principal) into a lucrative career as a so-called "school reformer."

But here's what Rhee didn't mention.

That union president, Karen Lewis, is a National Board Certified Teacher, just two years removed from her chemistry classroom, where she taught Chicago public school students for over two decades. In fact, Lewis has likely spent more time shaping young minds than Rhee and any six or seven of her closest Teach for America colleagues combined.

Lewis, in other words, is not the caricature of a union boss that Rhee wants her to be.

By reducing the strike to a clash between Lewis and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Rhee was also able to ignore the powerful voices of tens of thousands of teachers, parents and students who filled Chicago's streets last month to demand better conditions for students and teachers.

Lewis, to be sure, is an intelligent, charismatic leader, but it wasn't the strength of her personality or the power of her rhetoric that prompted 90 percent of Chicago's 26,000 teachers to authorize a strike last June. Emanuel did that all by himself.

Simply put, Chicago teachers weren't buying what Emanuel and his cadre of wealthy education advisers were selling.

Take class size, for example. Chicago teachers have grown tired of hearing that class size doesn't matter. They know it matters.

And the mayor knows it, too.

But Rhee never mentioned that Emanuel sends his kids to The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, a private institution where class sizes are capped at numbers that ensure meaningful instruction.

The mayor's kids are even taught by union teachers -- presumably not the greedy, cartoonish types that Rhee and Emanuel love to hate -- but the union at Emanuel's kids' school (AFT Local 2063) gets to bargain over class size.

Chicago public school kids aren't so lucky. That's why too many of them end up in classes with over 40 kids. And that's just one of the many reasons teachers, students and parents (like me) filled the streets last month.

Chicago teachers have also grown tired of the mayor's never-ending campaign of "public education by press release." Emanuel did himself no favors on that front last month when he launched a reported $1 million television ad campaign to trumpet what he claims to have accomplished for Chicago students.

The big-money backers behind the mayor's latest ads could have put their dollars to better use by funding libraries for the scores of resource-starved schools on the city's South and West Sides.

Or they could have used that money to hire social workers, so that kids at places like Harper High School have the day-to-day, wrap-around support staff they need. (During the 2011-12 school year, 27 current and former Harper students were shot -- eight of them fatally.)

Instead, however, the mayor and fellow privatizers like Rhee focus on messaging.

And their drumbeat just gets louder.

On September 19, billionaire venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, who is one of Emanuel's behind-the-scenes education advisers, told reporter Carol Marin that the Chicago teachers strike was simply about the union's drive to protect incompetent teachers. Rauner described his well-funded opposition to the union as a "war with huge stakes."

Rauner, Rhee and Emanuel need to forget about their war and start worrying about class sizes, libraries, art and music instruction and endless standardized testing.

You know, the things that Chicago teachers care about.