Obama is not a direct player in the dispute that has 26,000 teachers striking and 400,000 students caught in the middle. But he is a shadowy figure as his former acolyte, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, attempts to quell the uprising. Emanuel was Obama’s chief of staff before winning the mayoral job and no doubt the communications lines are hot between the windy city and the White House.
The dispute pits heretofore political bedfellows against each other. Chicago is decidedly Democrat and liberal. Emanuel remains a key Obama fundraiser. And public employee unions – especially teacher groups – have been staunch supporters of Democrat causes. Yet the love fest at least has been temporarily interrupted.
The conflict simmers over pay raises, classroom conditions, job security and teacher evaluations. Teachers in the nation’s third largest school district want a 30 percent pay increase over the next two years despite the school district’s current $700 million deficit. The union rejected a 16 percent increase – payable over the next four years – before calling the strike. That rejection came even though Chicago teachers average $71,000 per year in base pay while the typical Chicago worker – the mothers and fathers of those students held hostage in the dispute – earns $30,203.
The union also objects to teacher evaluations although the Chicago system is among the worst in the nation. Only 15 percent of fourth-graders and 21 percent of eighth-graders meet reading proficiency standards and only 56 percent of students graduate.
At stake are Emanuel’s reputation and the standing of the once powerful educational unions. Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have lost membership in recent years.
But the compelling – and decisive – issue is economic and the desire by some factions to seek additional rewards at public expense even for poor outcomes. In that sense, the Chicago case applies to all Americans. The city cannot afford business as usual. They cannot continue on the current path. Otherwise, the school district’s $700 million deficit will balloon to $3 billion in three years, experts say, as salaries and generous pensions come home to roost.
Something must be done – and done now – to reverse those trends and wrest control of expenses and spending. All the empathy, “do-goodism” and liberal “touchy-feelies” won’t change that gang of unruly facts.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, faced a somewhat similar confrontation in 2011 as public employee unions sought ever increasing pay and benefits at the expense of taxpayers . He chose to champion cuts in collective bargaining rights, pushed a bill through the state legislature and withstood a recall election. Today, the Wisconsin budget is balanced with a positive uptick in revenue.
But that was a Republican solution. What will be the Democrat answer in Chicago? All of us should be watching. For Chicago’s financial realities are child’s play compared to the nation’s $16 trillion deficit and headlong march to fiscal oblivion. The outcome should be instructive indeed as we approach the November elections.