Lessons from Chicago

Update: The Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract which would allow classes to resume on Monday, the Chicago Tribune reports.

It’s a testament to how peaceful labor relations have been in our schools that the Chicago Teachers Union strike has been front-page and prime-time news since Monday. A national Rorschach test on education: Everyone from the Wall Street Journal to Mother Jones weighed in. Like the guillotine, the strike focused the national mind.

The strike could be over soon—and many commentators predicted as much—but no matter when it ends, it offers us a chance to take the nation’s pulse. And the following is a quick roundup of opinion from a few of our notable educators, pundits, and editorial writers; much of it quite good.

First stop, of course, should be the Flypaper’s comprehensive list of stories, put together by a crackerjack team—Joe Portnoy, Pamela Tatz, and Ty Eberhardt. (As a former newsdesk guy, I can feel their pain—worth it, though, as the site proves.) And, of course, one of the best leads comes from our own Mike Petrilli:

I had a reporter ask me this week if I could remember a teachers’ strike as “confusing” as the one in Chicago; it was so hard, she explained, even to know over which issues the teachers were striking.
That’s not an accident. The local and national unions surely realized, after an onslaught of negative coverage, that complaining about 16 percent raises on top of $75,000 average salaries was not a winning argument during a period of 8 percent unemployment. So they changed their talking points: Now the teachers were upset about evaluations that would link their performance reviews with students’ test scores. But that position is unpopular, too—and puts the union at odds with President Obama—so now they are striking over…class sizes and air conditioning?

The New York Times certainly seemed to agree. Early on, the paper of record (is it still?) editorialized with a hard-hitting headline, “Chicago Teachers’ Folly”:

Teachers’ strikes, because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea. The strike that has roiled the civic climate in Chicago—and left 350,000 children without classes—seems particularly senseless because it is partly a product of a personality clash between the blunt mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and the tough Chicago Teachers Union president, Karen Lewis….
What stands out about this strike, however, is that the differences between the two sides were not particularly vast, which means that this strike was unnecessary. Moreover, Ms. Lewis, who seems to be basking in the power of having shut down the school system, seems more inclined toward damaging the mayor politically than in getting this matter resolved. If the strike goes on for much longer, the union could pay a dear price in terms of public opinion.

The Times stars seemed to align pretty quickly on the issue. The same day that the newspaper was convening a huge conference on education, Nicholas Kristof wrote one of the more concise analyses of the situation. Calling education “the most important civil rights battleground,” Kristof writes that “while the Chicago teachers’ union claims to be striking on behalf of students, I don’t see it.” Kristof does not hold back, calling Chicago schools’ short school day and year “unconscionable,” concluding,

This isn’t a battle between garment workers and greedy corporate barons. The central figures in the Chicago schools strike are neither strikers nor managers but 350,000 children. Protecting elements of a broken and unaccountable school system—the union demand—sacrifices those students, in effect turning a blind eye to a “separate but equal” education system.

Kristof’s columnist colleague David Brooks added his take this morning, offering an interesting compliment to Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats (traditional supporters of “Economy 2,” says Brooks, the one with people in government and education who “don’t have the sword of Damocles hanging over them so they don’t pursue unpleasant streamlining as rigorously” as those in “Economy 1”) for pushing to reform the Windy City’s schools. The new mayor’s grit, says Brooks, is “a hopeful sign that some Democrats are hardy enough to take on interests aligned with their own party.”

And no story on teacher unions would be complete without hearing from Terry M. Moe, the William Bennett Munro professor of political science at Stanford University and author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools, who weighed in for CNN:

It is easy to see the Chicago teachers strike as an unfortunate incident that will soon pass. This is, after all, their first strike in 25 years. The norm is that the district and the Chicago Teachers Union have regularly negotiated their way to contracts every several years. So it might appear that, almost always, collective bargaining "works."
But does it? The purpose of the Chicago school system — and of the American school system more generally — is to educate children. The way to assess collective bargaining is not to ask whether it works to bring labor peace. It is to ask whether it promotes the interests of children in a quality education. And the answer to that question is no, it does not. Not even remotely.

This seemed to be the dominant theme—that the strike hurt kids. As Mike Petrilli suggested on day one, “It’s hard to imagine the teachers winning in the court of public opinion.”

My unscientific read of things would surely support that view.

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