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The Democratic Party education wars continue to heat up

Rahm Emanuel's chief opponent in the teachers' union could challenge him for the mayoralty.
Rahm Emanuel's chief opponent in the teachers' union could challenge him for the mayoralty.
Paul Marotta/Getty Images Entertainment
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The Chicago Sun-Times is reporting that Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, could challenge Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel this fall. Lewis is reportedly looking into an exploratory committee and plans to put a campaign staffer in each of the city's 77 community areas. A poll has Lewis leading the mayor, 45 percent to 36 percent, with 18 percent of voters undecided.

Talking about forming an exploratory committee is a long way from actually running. The New Republic has a look at the politics of a potentially epic campaign. But if Lewis runs, one of the most immediate effects would be throwing the divisions within the Democratic Party on education policy into particularly sharp relief.

Lewis is arguably the most influential teachers' union president in the country; some observes credit her confrontational style, on display during a 2012 teachers' strike, with driving the American Federation of Teachers to more stridently oppose the education reform movement. Emanuel, on the other hand, is about as associated with the Barack Obama and Arne Duncan school of education reform as you can get.

At the national level, the reformers have the momentum; the teachers' unions are fighting back, but Democrats for Education Reform has successfully backed candidates in the Senate and in statehouses. In cities, though, some reform efforts have lost at the ballot box; DC Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his job in 2010, a defeat largely attributed to voter frustration with education reform.