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What the Chicago mayor's race says about the future of education politics

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis at the end of the teachers' strike in 2012.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis at the end of the teachers' strike in 2012.
McClatchy-Tribune via Getty Images
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.

Chicago's upcoming mayoral election could put tensions in the Democratic Party over teachers' unions front and center.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis is considering a challenge to Rahm Emanuel — a face-off between two brash Chicagoans who have clashed repeatedly over education policy in Chicago.

Lewis, who led Chicago teachers on a seven-day strike in 2012, has lent $40,000 of her own money to her campaign. The American Federation of Teachers has pledged to spend up to $1 million to get her elected. She hasn't formally declared her candidacy yet, and even so, the latest Chicago Tribune poll found she led Emanuel, 43 percent to 39 percent.

Lewis has been one of the most important and divisive figures in the fight over education reform in recent years — both reflecting trends within teachers unions and the Democratic Party, and playing a role in shaping those trends herself.

Lewis rose to power on dissatisfaction with Arne Duncan's Chicago

Lewis is probably the best-known teachers union leader who isn't in charge of a national organization. She's been seen as a model for pushing back against education reform trends embraced by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Teachers unions are now calling for Duncan's resignation and saying Obama should hold him accountable for his performance. But when the former Chicago schools chief was chosen to be the top US education official in 2008, he was viewed as a compromise choice, more acceptable to teachers unions than other big-city superintendents and education reformers such as Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein.

Duncan had overseen a program to close failing Chicago schools and open 100 new ones, including many charter schools. When he was chosen for the Cabinet post, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Marilyn Stewart, said the two had a "working relationship."

But while the relationship worked for Duncan and Stewart, it soon turned out that it was less popular with Chicago teachers. Lewis led a grassroots rebellion in the Chicago Teachers Union as part of a group opposing Duncan's reforms, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. When she ran for union president in 2010, she defeated Stewart overwhelmingly, 12,000 votes to 8,000.

The Obama administration has pushed education reform nationally more than any previous Democratic administration. And while teachers unions remain strongly Democratic, they're also not getting what they want on education policy at the national level.

Lewis went on to challenge a union trend toward compromise

Political observers say Lewis and her confrontational style had an immediate effect on the Chicago Teachers Union's umbrella group, the American Federation of Teachers — which is now more likely to confront reformers than to try to find common ground.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, had established a reputation as a reform-friendly union leader, even embracing evaluating teachers in part based on students' standardized test scores. "She has led her members — sometimes against internal resistance — to embrace innovations that were once unthinkable," the New York Times wrote in October 2010. "She has acted out of a fear that teachers' unions could end up on the wrong side of a historic and inevitable wave of change."

But Lewis challenged the idea that teachers unions should work with reformers to find common ground.

Under Lewis' leadership, Chicago teachers in fall 2012 overwhelmingly voted to strike — the first teachers' strike in 25 years. The strike lasted seven days and ended in a compromise that could be framed as a win for both sides: it preserved seniority-based raises for teachers, but established an evaluation system that took students' growth, as measured by standardized tests, into account. After the strike ended, Lewis and Weingarten co-wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed that lauded the compromise as "solution-driven unionism."

Lewis' stand also energized unions in other cities, says Andy Rotherham, the founder of Bellwether Education Partners and a former Clinton education adviser. And it presented an alternative to Weingarten's model of cooperation.

"Heading into that strike, [Weingarten's] argument to her members was, times are changing, we have to change too and so we need to be at the table," Rotherham said. "Karen Lewis was the one who put a stake in the ground and said, no, there's another option, which is to fight."

Lewis wasn't the only factor. The battles in Wisconsin over collective bargaining for public-sector unions also pushed teachers unions into a more militant position. But Weingarten's rhetoric has changed in recent years; where she once supported contracts that judge teachers in part on students' standardized test scores, the AFT has turned against those measures, calling them "a sham."

The other major union, the National Education Association, has also moved toward more militancy in its leadership. The new NEA president, Lily Eskelen-García, is universally profiled as blunt. "I will be damned if I sit quietly and play nice," Eskelen-García told the Washington Post earlier this year.

Could Lewis win?

One of Emanuel's most controversial decisions was closing more than 50 public schools in Chicago, and Lewis' early public appearances have focused on that decision, saying that the city needs an elected school board and a mayor who opposes school closings.

A Lewis-Emanuel race would crystallize the split within the Democratic Party over the role of teachers unions. But the race isn't likely to be solely — or even primarily — about education policy. While Emanuel is a supporter of charter schools who's generally seen as being a reform-friendly, reformers don't hurry to claim Chicago as a hotbed of change, which could blunt the election's symbolic weight.

Instead, Lewis is likely to run on a broader populist platform that channels anger against Emanuel on a variety of fronts — a campaign similar to Zephyr Teachout's against Andrew Cuomo in New York.

Emanuel's disapproval ratings are at an all-time high: just 35 percent of voters approve of the job he's doing. Still, the mayor has $8.3 million in campaign funds.

Meanwhile, Lewis appears more and more likely to run. "Anyone who takes her lightly is making a mistake," says Rotherham, who added that he would nevertheless not predict a Lewis victory. "She managed politically in Chicago to do something that's actually hard to do… She closed the schools for a week-plus and didn't get run out of town."