The seemingly out-of-the-blue Chicago teachers strike is deeply complicated, very important, and a potential political game-changer. To the extent right or wrong matters it's almost impossible to tell. The bargaining positions of the two sides aren't clear. Are the teachers paid enough? (They average $71,000). Do they work enough hours? (Mayor Emanuel proposed longer school days.) How should each teacher be evaluated? What's happened to test scores? Can incompetent teachers be removed? Are principals and superintendents doing the right kind of job? Every question about American education and the presidential race is part of the strike.
If we've learned anything in the ongoing debate about education policy it's that there is no agreement among the experts or the public about any of these questions. And political ideology has emerged as a defining lens through which the debate is focused. The conservative (largely but not entirely led by Republicans) attack on unions was a major part of the Tea Party agenda and the 2010 elections put anti-union activists in charge of state governments across America. If the attack on unions in Wisconsin and Indiana taught us anything it's that the public is about evenly divided on the desirability or survival of the American labor movement.
The entire educational mess is further exacerbated by a growing recognition that cities around America are teetering on the brink of financial collapse. Growing bankruptcy filings, nervous municipal bond markets, even the Sage of Omaha Warren Buffett have joined a chorus of concern that cities are facing structural deficits beyond their ability to close. It is likely, almost inevitable that such a trend will land squarely on the desk of the next president, and unlikely that it will ripen in time for the November election.
The Chicago strike will play out in the last eight weeks of a presidential race that's about a dead-heat. Romney has, shock of shocks, blamed Obama for the strike:
"President Obama has chosen his side in this fight, sending his Vice President last year to assure the nation's largest teachers union that 'you should have no doubt about my affection for you and the President's commitment to you. I choose to side with the parents and students depending on public schools to give them the skills to succeed, and my plan for education reform will do exactly that."
But it's not as simple as Romney's quote makes it out to be; the normal fault line of pro-management Republicans and pro-union Democrats won't hold. Management will be led by Obama's own Mayor Rahm Emanuel. And Republicans court criticism for politicizing a strike. This will undoubtedly become a backdrop for the presidential race, and if things go wrong, a surrogate battlefield.
Obama seems to be at greater risk. Republicans have cleverly played on the resentment toward public employees felt by Americans affected by the down economy. The left, and the labor movement, have not developed a response that has equivalent power and depth. There's no real advantage for Obama to shift focus to a messy and angry labor fight and away from his moderately successful insistence that the election is a choice about the future not a referendum about the past. On the other hand, Romney has shown no facility for turning events to his own advantage.
In the end, as instructive as a strike may be for those who want to explore the realities of urban finance and educational policy, it's fraught with uncertainty. Cooler heads will hopefully prevail. But it's Chicago, so expect bumpy ride.