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Opinion: Columnists

Sean Higgins: Meet Rahm Emanuel, school reform leader

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a famously aggressive, volatile individual, but he may have met his match in the equally confrontational Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.

The two have engaged in a bitter, public and highly personal feud over the mayor's efforts to reform the Chicago public schools system. At stake is the question of who ultimately controls the education system, the unions or the city's elected leaders.

Emanuel, a veteran of the Obama and Clinton administrations, is no conservative. But he is a pragmatist who is trying to deal with a city that is frankly a mess.

The average annual teacher salary for Cook County, Ill., for example, is among the highest in the nation, at $75,000, according to Northern Illinois University. The state average is $65,000.

Despite these salaries, the state ranks 28th on both reading and math scores, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Last year, more than 51,000 elementary school students couldn't meet state reading standards. The system has a 61 percent graduation rate. For black males, the number is just 45 percent.

Meanwhile, schools sit half-empty across the city due to declining enrollment and the move to charter schools. That's one reason the system is facing a $1 billion deficit in the coming fiscal year. The teachers' pension fund has a staggering $8 billion in unfunded liabilities.

Emanuel's efforts to fix this have brought him into direct confrontation with Lewis, a radical leftie. In late 2011, he began negotiating with individual schools to increase the school day, which Lewis viewed as him going behind her back.

She has described a meeting they had at the time in his office as quickly descending into them shouting the f-word at each other.

"It got ugly for a while," she said in a speech last month to the New York Collective of Radical Educators (yes, really). "Needless to say, that was the last time I had a discussion with the mayor."

Last fall, she led the city's first teacher strike in 25 years. She ultimately won an average raise of 17.6 percent over four years for her members.

She led another protest last week, shutting down the street in front of city hall. That was aimed at stopping Emanuel's plan to close 54 city schools, citing their underutilization.

The plan will save the city $600 million over the next decade, a move Emanuel said was long overdue.

Lewis has denounced the move, accusing the mayor of exposing students to "gang violence," due to the closures. She even dubbed him the "murder mayor." She has also pointed that the targeted schools have mostly black students. "Let's not pretend that's not racist."

The union denies an underutilization problem even exists. "We believe they are fudging the numbers," CTU staff coordinator Jackson Potter told me.

Behind Lewis' inflammatory rhetoric is the fact that the move will likely cost her union hundreds of members. CTU's Potter said they expect that 1,300 teachers will be laid off.

The union's contract would require many of these teachers to be rehired -- if any rehiring occurs. Emanuel is consolidating class size, so it's not clear how many teachers will be retained.

Lewis is also running for re-election this May as union president. Even before the closing were announced challengers had appeared arguing she didn't get enough in the contract negotiations to prevent school closures. So she has a personal interest in raising a ruckus now.

This battle will likely be replicated across the nation. A recent Pew Survey found that the populations of school-age children are falling even in cities like New York and Philadelphia.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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