Randi and Rahm Not as Far Apart as Rhetoric Suggests

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten came to the City Club of Chicago today six days before the April 7 mayoral runoff. Given her union’s seven-figure investment in challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, it was no surprise the candidate himself showed up towards the end for a quick handshake before a friendly crowd that included Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. Politics aside, however, it was notable how many issues surfaced where the national union leader was closely aligned with leading reformers, including Garcia’s opponent and Chicago’s sitting mayor, Rahm Emanuel. President Weingarten mentioned the benefits of early learning, which Mayor Emanuel has expanded in Chicago and his old boss in Washington wants to extend to all low-income children. She talked about one of her favorite subjects—giving more time to teachers to collaborate and plan—although she stopped short of embracing Chicago’s longer school day—also championed by Mayor Emanuel. She saluted Chicago’s nation-leading effort to boost teacher quality by getting more than 2,200 teachers certified by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. This effort began in earnest under current U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools with considerable outside support from the Chicago Public Education Fund, including a $1 million donation from the former Fund board chairman and current Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner. And it continues to be a priority for CPS under current leadership. In various comments, President Weingarten acknowledged the need for both turning around low-performing schools and closing ones that are underutilized. Presumably this could include the 49 Chicago public schools closed in 2013, all of which were under-enrolled. In a nod to closing under-performing schools, she shared the reasons for closing the New York City charter school she helped start as President of the United Federation of Teachers, the New York affiliate of the AFT. In her words, the UFT Charter School in Brooklyn was “not measuring up.” In fact, the school had struggled for more than a decade, even under the new accountability system designed by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s handpicked chancellor. She walked a very fine line on the issue of mayoral control of city schools, highlighting the broad opposition to it in Chicago registered during the Feb. 24 primary election—but defending it in New York, where de Blasio is lobbying for permanent control of the school system. And just one day after amplifying on social media a union-led campaign in New York State to encourage parents to opt out of standardized testing, she made an impassioned argument against a school closing decision in Chicago by emphasizing the school’s increases in test scores. In fact, in partnership with the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank, she has publicly embraced a version of test-based accountability in connection with the Congressional reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. More than anything, Weingarten’s appearance illustrates how the polarizing debate around education reform divides people who might otherwise find areas of agreement. Given so much common ground, Emanuel just might consider inviting President Weingarten back to Chicago to help broker a new contract with the CTU if he wins on April 7.  
Photo from City Club of Chicago's Twitter.
Tracy Dell’Angela
Tracy Dell’Angela is a writer, education nonprofit executive director and a mom passionate about education improvements. Previously, Tracy was Director of Outreach and Communications for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. She came to IES from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which produces research that ...

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