At last month's budget hearing at Kennedy-King College, Mayor Emanuel let it be known he's got nothing but love for public school teachers. In fact, he thinks they're "really good."
I guess he's just got a funny way of showing it.
Within days of the hearing Emanuel unleashed an awesome full-court public relations offensive slamming teachers for selfishly resisting his good-faith effort to lengthen the school day by 90 minutes. And he's shown no signs of letting up.
Hats off to the mayor for this one. As political campaigns go, it's a rip-roaring success, with almost every columnist and editorial writer in town chiming in to say, right on!
I haven't seen such love between the mainstream media and a political boss since Mayor Daley tried to bring the Olympics to town.
They all agree: more time in school has to happen right now. Never mind the details such as what teachers and students will do with that extra time. This has to happen—you know, for the kids.
Oh man. I always get a little nervous when Chicago operators start talking about doing things for the kids—that's when you can be pretty sure they've got some trick up their sleeves. As a matter of fact, Mayor Daley said he wanted to bring the Olympics to town so he could build more recreational facilities in low-income areas for the kids—as opposed to billions of dollars of contracts for the well-connected.
The showdown over the longer school day comes in the midst of an ongoing tussle between the mayor and the teachers union over money. Teachers want to hold on to what they've got and the mayor wants to give them less, probably so he has more left over to spend on other things, like deals for cronies and contributors.
But don't let anyone fool you—this fight over the school day is not about kids. Fundamentally, it's not even about money. It's a political power play by a crafty mayor who's looking to undercut the teachers union, one of the few sources of potential opposition left in this town.
Specifically, Emanuel is trying to make good on a hastily conceived promise made during last winter's mayoral campaign. That's the one where Emanuel, searching for a campaign issue—any campaign issue—that would make him look like something besides Mayor Daley's handpicked successor, declared that Chicago's public school students spent too little time in the classroom. He vowed that he would lengthen the day if elected.
He didn't talk about what students would do with that extra time, since he didn't actually know. Nor did he show any interest in hiring more art, music, and drama teachers so the extra time would be particularly worthwhile. It was more like, "The schools suck—so I'll make the kids spend more time in them!"
To be fair, Emanuel's not the first mayor to try to cram some half-baked education idea down the throats of teachers and students. He's not even the first mayor to talk about expanding the school day—Mayor Daley talked about it all the time.
Not that he ever followed through. Daley was an all-powerful mayor who controlled billions of dollars. If he wanted to lengthen the school day, he could have done so at virtually any time during his 22-year reign, especially during the go-go real estate boom of the late 90s and early 00s when the city was flush with cash. All he had to do was come up with the money to hire more school aides so teachers could have a break from their kids and the kids could have a break from their teachers.
But Mayor Daley wanted to spend the money on other things, such as—well, you know the list: the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, MillerCoors, the underground rail station at Block 37 that will never open . . .
Sorry—I had to stop. Just thinking about the station at Block 37 worked me into the kind of red-faced lather that Daley used to display in the final days when he'd start railing against the teachers, reporters, U.S. Supreme Court justices, or anyone else in his path.
I suppose Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, could have gone along with Emanuel, as her predecessors generally went along with Daley. She'd have spared herself the bitter debate with the mayor that included such heartfelt moments as "Fuck you, Lewis."
Then again, we ought to look at this from her perspective. The longer-school-day showdown comes on the heels of two years' worth of teacher-bashing dictates from the board of education. Faithful readers, you know this list too: adding hours, cutting raises, getting rid of tenure, creating the dreaded do-not-hire list for teachers who cross their principals, and of course, turning more and more resources over to the charters.
Yes, charter school teachers can form unions. But it's a struggle. And even if they do unionize, the law prohibits them from affiliating with the Chicago Teachers Union. So the more charters the mayor creates the more power CTU loses. And there will be more—we're up to 71 and Emanuel says he wants to keep them coming.
If I didn't know better, I'd say Emanuel's hell-bent on turning teachers into patronage workers—like the scores of city workers the old sewer department boss Donald Tomczak used to dispatch to the precincts on election day to work for Mayor Daley's favorite candidates, including a certain congressman by the name of Rahm Emanuel.
Next thing you know, teachers will be showing up at press conferences to say they're happy working longer for less. Oh, wait—they already did that at the United Neighborhood Organization, Emanuel's favorite charter school empire.
I will say this—Emanuel has tried to soften his approach in the last few weeks. He and his sidekicks in the central office of the Chicago Public Schools have miraculously discovered enough money in their budget—the one they could only balance by raising property taxes—to give teachers a one-year, 2 percent raise if they break from Lewis and vote for the longer day.
It's amazing how they always mange to find a little more fat in a budget that's been cut to the bone.
I'm not surprised that Emanuel's found some teachers to go along with this scheme. Especially with the do-not-hire sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of new teachers—if they run afoul of the principal, they risk being banned for life from teaching in Chicago.
By pressuring teachers to vote to waive the union contract and work the longer day, Emanuel is urging teachers to break ranks from their union at the very moment the union and board are sitting down to negotiate a new contract to replace the existing one that expires next June.
I'm not sure what's to be gained for the kids by breaking the union and turning their classrooms over to teachers who, like Tomczak's city workers, cower in fear at the boss.
But then, like I was telling you, this really isn't about the kids. It's about adults using kids to amass more power.
While the longer-school-day battle was raging . . .
I met with a teacher who works at a north-side charter school.
After taxes and health insurance deductions, her monthly take-home pay is about $1,800—not quite enough to pay all her bills.
She says she's going to drop medical coverage for her two children and go on All Kids, the state-funded insurance program for children whose parents are too broke to pay for private premiums.
It used to be that public school teachers formed the backbone of working-class and middle-class neighborhoods.
Today's teachers have to look for charity.
Way to go, Mr. Mayor and civic Chicago—if you're looking to destroy an honorable middle-class profession, you're doing one heckuva job.