September 13, 2012
If the striking Chicago teachers wanted to see the mayor as some angry Rahmpelstiltskin — stamping his feet in those in curly-toed boots, shrieking to be paid for spinning all that straw into gold — they'll have to wait a few more days.
It's not yet time for fairy tales.
The teachers strike is only days old, and Chicago parents are still able to juggle time off from work and get in-laws or friends to watch the kids. Parents are increasingly frustrated, but they haven't turned on him yet.
"The kids haven't driven Grandma crazy," said a longtime North Side alderman at City Hall when I asked how long Mayor Rahm Emanuel will hold on. "But if it goes on, they will. And once Grandma can't take it anymore, then we'll see."
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis knows this. As does Emanuel. It's building on him.
"Please, please," he said Wednesday at City Hall, asking teachers to return to work while negotiations continue. "Let's get the kids back in school. It's not like anybody is going to lose any of the impetus of getting this done."
If the teachers return to work during negotiations, the only ones who'll lose impetus are the teachers. They know it. So does he.
The Rahmfather is wedded to his own elaborate narrative, spun out over years of expert behind-the-scenes leaking to reporters, including those at The New York Times and The Washington Post. He's the man who doesn't rattle, the man who handles things. He served two presidents, some of that time as gatekeeper of information and access, and that must have led to those gushingly adoring profiles of Rahm when he was named President Barack Obama's chief of staff.
But he's no longer the chief of staff or boss of the committee to elect Democrats to Congress. Someday, Emanuel might be president. Right now, though, he's mayor of Chicago. And as mayor, he owns the schools strike. He owns the rising homicide rate. He owns it all.
And he owns this public employees union strike while his old boss, Obama, needs help from those same public employee unions in the coming election. With Chicago Public Schools a billion dollars in the hole and more, and now after he offered that 16 percent raise over four years to the teachers without telling the public exactly how he'll pay for it, here's what's happening: The cops are waiting. The firefighters are waiting. They're wondering, where's theirs?
On Wednesday he was quite calm, nothing like the strange Khrushchev Rahm of a few days ago, when Tribune reporter Kristen Mack asked him if the strike was a test of his leadership and he responded by pounding the lectern with his palm, insisting it wasn't about him but about the kids, a mayor seemingly on the verge of removing his shoe to pound some more.
And while the CTU would love to wave posters of him as the angry imp from the Brothers Grimm stories, he wasn't angry at all. At his news conference Wednesday, he kept his shoe on and pleaded for the teachers to return to work and allow negotiations to continue. He conceded that the sticking point was how teachers would be evaluated and whether they would be rehired after they lose their jobs.
And he talked of parental choice and charter schools — schools publicly funded but privately administered — and spoke in a thin and measured voice that should send cold shivers down the legs of the teachers union leaders because "choice" is code for schools without union clout.
"About 19,000 students have applied (to charter schools)," he said. "But we don't have the availability. So clearly there are more people that would like to be in charter schools than we have available, quote unquote, seats for them. … My goal isn't charters per se. My goal is the availability of choice for parents."
Charter schools will eventually become political power centers of their own, perhaps even less accountable than the current public system. My belief is that absolute school choice — meaning vouchers given to parents so their children may attend any school — is the much better option because it empowers parents at the grass-roots level. But the Rahmfather has a reason to push charter schools.
Because after the current strike is eventually settled, I figure he'll close many public schools. On Wednesday, the Tribune reported that 80 to 120 schools could be closed. He'll have to cut something to help pay for that 16 percent raise he's offered to the CTU.
"Nobody knows yet because we haven't worked through this issue yet," he said of school closings. "And nobody, first of all there have been other issues ahead of that. That hasn't been decided at this point. I don't know what they're going to do for consolidation."
He doesn't know? Of course he knows.
This is why Lewis and the CTU have been so adamant demanding that the district first rehire laid-off teachers when new jobs open up. Rahm is winning the public relations spin battle on this one, but he hasn't fooled the teachers.
If there's one group that knows fairy tales when it hears them, it's teachers.
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