Why the Public Votes for Teachers in the Chicago Strike

Rahm Emanuel has had scant contact with Ravenswood Elementary School as a neighbor, congressman or mayor. But an unpublicized tragedy there helps explain why striking teachers, not the city's famous new boss, elicited such citywide public support during his first major crisis.

The school is just up the block from where he lives; a dilapidated building with austere concrete playground adjacent to a beautiful residential neighborhood with million-dollar homes. Its students are majority low-income, given the wider area it serves, and it lacks the middle-class parent base to spur fancy auctions and other needed fundraising since virtually all the better-off families nearby send their children to private schools, as does the mayor.

The mayor I've tagged "The Missile" has aggressively pursued desperately needed changes in the length of the Chicago school day, stronger assessments of teachers and greater hiring authority for principals. But an ever-disciplined and well-prepared politician and strategist made a few tactical and rhetorical missteps leading up to the walkout that might end Sunday evening if the union's delegates approve an apparent tentative accord.

Those miscues helped to galvanize a very self-protective, change-resistant union against him. But then came the public's clear backing of the teachers, which might have surprised some but certainly not those few who knew of what played out at the school a stone's throw from Emanuel's home.

Screen Shot 2012-09-15 at 10.17.39 PM.pngThe parents there have included Kristin Lotane, 43 (shown at left), an event planner married to a freelance photographer. Their two daughters are in 4th and 5th grades at Ravenswood. I crossed paths with her when our third-grader went to pre-kindergarten and kindergarten at Ravenswood, before we sent him to another public school.

She was smart, funny and self-effacing, as I recall. "Just a good egg," a mutual friend put it Saturday. She was a member of the school's oversight council and helped with the new spring fundraiser at an old German social club.

In July she was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. I knew what that meant since my mom died of the same disease. On Monday, the strike's first day, Kristin passed away.

Even in the Internet age, the prime communications vehicle at Ravenswood is playground conversation before and after school. With the strike, word filtered out slowly but did get out. And, as it did, the school community came together; paying no heed to differences there might have been regarding the strike.

One teacher left the picket line the other day and, instead of heading to a big downtown union rally, sped to the Lotane home to be with the two girls for many hours. In recent days, other mothers have provided additional childcare and cooked meals. A school social worker has provided support. Notes posted by strikers on the metal fence at the school underscore their desire to see their students soon.

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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