Second City Follies

The eyes of school reformers—and their opponents—are fixed on Chicago, where the teachers’ union has picked a fight with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. If nothing else, this shows that New York’s teachers’ union has no monopoly on foolishness. Some politicians pretend to be rough-and-tumble characters. Mr. Emanuel is the real deal, as the teachers in Chicago are discovering.

The teachers’ strike has moved into its second week, although there are signs that the dispute may end as early as late Tuesday afternoon, after press time. If it doesn’t, the mayor plans to go to court to force the teachers back into the classroom. As well he should, because the strike was an affront to the city and, of course, to Chicago’s 350,000 students. Before they walked out, the teachers managed to water down some needed reforms—the city agreed, for example, to hire back some laid-off teachers regardless of their past performance in the classroom—and extracted an additional $74 million per year in salary hikes. Mr. Emanuel, for his part, insists on including standardized tests scores as part of teacher performance evaluations. The union, of course, hates this. Like their counterparts in New York’s schools, union leaders in Chicago oppose anything that even hints at accountability.

New York most definitely has a dog in this fight—his name is Rahm. Mr. Emanuel may have gone out of his way to antagonize the union, and he may have made this battle more personal than he should have, but in the end, what matters is who wins. If Mr. Emanuel wins, teachers’ unions across the country may be inspired to re-consider their chronic obstructionism. If the union wins, well, you can expect teachers in New York and elsewhere to become more aggressive in defense of archaic work rules and in opposition to evaluations and other forms of accountability.

Even as the strike unfolded in Chicago, a new film about union intransigence is about to open nationwide. The lead characters in Won’t Back Down are two mothers who come together to bring change to a failing urban school. Needless to say, the teachers’ unions are in an uproar—the truth may set you free, but it also can cause great discomfort. Randi Weingarten has lashed out at the film’s “blatant stereotypes and caricatures.” Apparently she believes any portrayal of out-of-touch union leaders who haven’t been in a classroom in decades is somehow a “caricature.”

It seems undeniable that public opinion is moving away from the world views of Ms. Weingarten and her fellow bosses. Leaders like Mr. Emanuel and Michael Bloomberg are demanding accountability, not excuses, and flexibility, not red tape, as they seek to bring public schools into the 21st Century. Neither party has a monopoly on reform, although it is significant that Mr. Emanuel, a Democrat and onetime chief of staff for President Obama, has become public enemy number one for teachers’ unions (replacing, of course, Michelle Rhee, the innovative former leader of Washington D.C.’s schools).

Unions have had many opportunities to adapt to changing public demands. But they have chosen to rely on old arguments, old rules, and old formulas. They say they care only about “the kids.”

Does anybody really believe that?