Chicago’s more than 350,000 public school pupils finally went back to class yesterday, after seven missed days due to the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike. They were thus deprived of about four percent of the school year—and these are kids who need more schooling, not less. (One big issue in the labor-management dispute was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to lengthen Chicago’s famously bobtailed school day and year.)
The Chicago strike was a useful reminder that teacher unions are fundamentally selfish.
Photo by RachelD.
Thanks a bunch, CTU.
This strike—the first big one by teachers in ages—will be examined every which way for months to come, and the contract that was finally agreed upon will be carefully autopsied. (If you’d like to see a careful analysis of a previous Chicago teacher contract, download Fordham’s Leadership Limbo report and flip to page fifty. If you’d like to inspect the contract that was in force until a couple of months ago—be warned that it’s 176 pages long!—you can access it from the National Council on Teacher Quality’s website.)
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.
Mike broke down the significance of the Chicago teachers' strike on "The Kudlow Report" last night.
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?
This is akin to the Republican defense of the dubious “Voter ID” laws: That they are necessary to protect against voter fraud. Everyone knows they are a cynical ploy to suppress the participation of poor and minority citizens—likely Democratic voters. But GOP officials can’t admit that. So they obfuscate.
So it is with the Chicago Teachers Union. It’s the meat-and-potatoes issue of pay and benefits
Teachers striking in Chicago should come as no surprise. On one side is Rahm Emanuel, the city’s profane and hard-driving mayor, and the on the other side is Karen Lewis, the Dartmouth educated chemistry teacher, who once said of Arne Duncan, “you know he went to private school, because if he’d gone to public school, he’d have had that lisp fixed.” Not exactly the most congenial pair. Lewis battled Rahm before his election and claimed he wanted to “warehouse” children by adding hours to some of the shortest school days in the nation. Rahm, according to The Atlantic, does not want to repeat the mistakes of the last round of negotiations, under Duncan. Those talks led to promises of higher pay, money that has not yet found its way into teacher paychecks, and a shorter school year. As Rahm said, “I know what the teachers got, and I know what the politicians got. But I don’t know what the kids got.”
Both sides have drawn their lines; now the public will wait and see who flinches first.
Emanuel is trying to position himself as the defender of children’s rights and has called the union’s move as a “strike of choice.” Lewis and other union leaders frame themselves as under attack from a “bully” with no recourse other than their latest maneuver. Both sides have drawn their lines; now the public will wait and see who flinches
It’s rarely wise for administrators (or school boards, or mayors) to pick unnecessary fights, but it’s also unwise to shy away from those that need to be fought through on behalf of the public interest.
Administrators and elected officials have a duty to look out for the public fisc.
School systems like Chicago’s face many opportunities for collaboration with teachers unions. For example, preparing to teach to the new, higher “Common Core” standards is an effort best done together, with the expertise of front-line teachers playing a key role.
But there are other times when the interests of the teachers and those of the broader public are not the same. Especially when money is tight, administrators (and elected officials like Rahm Emmanuel) have a duty to look out for the public fisc. More cash for teacher salaries, as the Chicago Teachers Union is demanding, means less for everything else—after-school programs, early childhood initiatives, police, public health, everything. Leaders need to hold the line.
Likewise with the issue of job security. Unions are built to protect their members’ jobs and pensions, regardless of performance. The public, on the other hand, is best served when administrators put the most effective teachers in the classroom, and ask the least effective to find other lines of work. In a system like Chicago’s, where declining enrollment
About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
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