Chicago Strike Shows How Unions Stifle Reform

Lessons from the Windy City teachers strike


Chicago's public-school teachers went on strike over a modest plan to extend their work day and subject them to the type of standardized performance testing they typically administer to students.

It was the latest reminder that teachers' unions exist to expand the pay and protections of teachers, not to help "the children." Unions protect their worst-performing members, which is why Mayor Rahm Emanuel's testing plan caused so much angst.

We've all read examples of unions coddling rotten apples—layoffs of the "teacher of the year" because seniority trumps performance and those "rubber rooms" where accused educational miscreants spend their days collecting full pay as the case against them is adjudicated in a disciplinary process designed to insulate them from accountability.

The only thing that gets teachers' unions angrier than having to subject their members to performance tests are plans to subject them to competition through charter schools and vouchers. Note also the type of people who rise to union leadership. The only enjoyable part of this Chicago-strike spectacle was watching two bullies battle it out in front of the TV cameras.

It's also interesting to see how the strike split the Democratic coalition. As The New York Times reported Thursday, "The strike pits several core components of the Democratic coalition against one another: The teachers' union and much of organized labor are on a war footing against [Emanuel] … . What is more, the strike pits organized labor against myriad wealthy liberals—vital donors to Democratic coffers—many of whom contribute heavily to efforts to finance charter schools  and weaken teachers' unions."

Even though the reforms were led by Mayor Emanuel, the former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, the Obama administration refused to weigh in on the matter. Obviously, a public school labor dispute is not a federal issue, but Obama rarely recognizes any constitutional limits on anything. He could have used this nationally publicized strike as one of those "teachable moments," but we understand his silence. He didn't want to anger the unions.

Short-term politics aside, the spectacle was depressing when one considers what's at stake—the future success of the students held hostage to the mismanaged and bureaucratic Chicago school system. Following a deal that was unfolding Friday, the system will chug along in its current shape one way or another.

Few Democrats believe in any sort of reform beyond throwing more taxpayer dollars at a dysfunctional government school monopoly controlled—from the classroom to the school board—almost completely by teachers' unions.

Here in California, the state constitution mandates that at least 40 percent of the general-fund budget go to public K-14 education, in addition to the federal funds and local bond dollars sent to the schools. Yet the state's leaders cannot come up with any better idea for uplifting the state's students than finding more tax dollars to fund the current system. Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30 tax-increase measure is packaged as a boost in education funding. This debate over the quality of education has been going on my entire life, and the same folks call for the same solutions (more money!) and nothing ever changes. Is it any wonder?

It was Emanuel who said, famously, "You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before."

His critics portrayed that statement as an expression of cynicism, but it's something all politicians know. The current "scarcity" of public dollars offers an opportunity to talk about the issues that really matter, from education reform to pension reform. Unfortunately, the nation's educational problems need a more radical fix than any politician from either party is willing to consider.

The best news about the Chicago strike was that a prominent Democratic official at least tried to take on the unions, although he doesn't appear to be getting much for the bother.

Republicans tend to represent suburban and rural school districts where education is tolerable. Education expert Lance Izumi penned a book about suburban school districts called Not As Good As You Think, detailing the mediocrity of even the best public schools. But it's easy to be complacent in safe communities where parents plaster "Student of the Month" bumper stickers on their minivans and their kids head off to good colleges after graduation.

In urban areas, education can be dismal. These districts often have the highest per-capita student spending in the nation. Because the worst schools are in the most Democratic areas, we will perhaps see more serious Democratic officials taking on the biggest obstacle to reform, the unions.

There's a reason poor parents jump through hoops to try to get their kids enrolled in charter schools. Those schools have been freed from the teachers' union stranglehold.

Instead of siding with the poor and downtrodden, however, most liberal writers sided with the powerful and privileged teachers' unions. As Sally Kohn wrote recently in Salon, "The teachers and teachers' unions who work in these districts to try to help are part of the solution. Poverty, homelessness and the dramatic funding cuts to social services that help needy families, as well as the cuts to public education, are the problem."

Liberals used to insist that every child deserves a great education. Now, thanks to their closeness with unions that protect an arcane education system built on an industrial labor-union model, liberals are saying that we can't help poor kids until we eliminate poverty and create Nirvana. Haven't they seen the great success of Catholic and charter schools in tough urban areas? Why are these union advocates so willing to leave so many poor kids behind?

Americans should applaud Emanuel's willingness to take on the Chicago teachers union, regardless of the final details. But only real solution to the nation's failing school model is to break it up and create a system based on competition and incentives.

NEXT: Jay Carney: Protests Not Directed At United States writ large or U.S. Policy

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  1. Chicago Strike Shows How Unions Stifle Reform

    Captain Obvious to the rescue!

    1. That’s kind of a sarcastic response, sarcasmic.

  2. “7 Important Facts about the Chicago Teachers Union Strike”…..hers-union

  3. Looks live Obama is going to cave and the union is going to win.

    1. Say it isn’t so……

    2. What does Obama have to do with a Chicago teachers strike?

      1. He is everywhere. The alpha and the omega. The beginning and the end, forever and ever…

        1. He’s The Raven!

      2. Haha… you think Obama wants the teachers’ union strike to go on and on and on in Chicago during the meaty part of an election year?

        Come on man.

        No doubt the White House has been berating Rahm Emmanuel all week about this. There is no way in the world Obama takes on the teachers.

  4. I think the city’s making an error in holding out for the evaluations. That’s not the important thing. The pensions and pay are the important things. Sounds like maybe they can get that.

    I don’t sense that they’re doing the old bait and switch, which is too bad. I think the really want the evaluations. That’s not what they need….go fer co-pays, etc. As they say on “Pass Time” – “Cash iiiiisssssss goooooooood.”

    1. No, the error is not firing every single one of these criminals and not using the crisis to push for full emasculation of the public sector union mafia.

    2. Unions are holding education back. They are staunchly opposed to reform, accountability, or progress. They care more about protecting bad teachers than rewarding good ones, or about the children who suffer when bad teachers are allowed to continue.

  5. Can’t the city just post want-ads in the local papers and have a job fair? If they did, there’d be at least half of the numbers they need show up. And once those people go to work, the rest would be filled within a matter of a few days.

    If you ignore these assholes (or more like, if you were allowed to ignore these assholes), the unions would cease to be a force. Seriously. They should have no power when there are literally tens of thousands of qualified teachers that are currently unemployed. But by chicanery and manipulation, a striking union can’t simply be replaced by the hiring entity anymore.

    I swear to God, if I had a company and the employees voted to organize, I’d terminate every single one of them and be at full staff within a week.

    1. And a week is about how long it would take the National Labor Relations Board to shut your business down.

      1. A government isn’t a business, and I think SOCTUS precedent says that state (and presumably city) unions are governed by state law, not federal.

  6. Everybody knows?” paying teachers more means you care about the students the teachers ignore.

  7. I just want to make sure that whenever we say, “won’t someone think of the children?” we are imagining Maude Flanders, right?

    Just checking.

  8. “Competition and incentives”? These are values of capitalistic business aren’t they? They have NEVER, in all of history, been cited as proper for the education of children, future citizens or teachers. How can you criticize teachers’ unions for promoting nothing but salary and benefits and then insist that their interest in the system be motivated by the same things you condemn? This is a clear case of Orwellian double-speak; sadly, like Big Brother, friend of students, parents, teachers, administrators and school systems, you are getting away with it.

    1. Lew| 9.14.12 @ 2:39PM |#
      …”They have NEVER, in all of history, been cited as proper for the education of children, future citizens or teachers.”


  9. “Competition and incentives”? These are values of capitalistic business aren’t they? They have NEVER, in all of history, been cited as proper for the education of children, future citizens or teachers.

    Uhhh… bullshit. Competition and incentives are integral to producing excellence in any endeavor. And yes, they HAVE been cited as proper in the “education of children, future citizens or teachers. Haven’t you heard of “grading on a curve?” Aren’t you aware that there are private schools in k-12 and higher education both in the US and elsewhere in the world? A monopoly (no competition) produces just what you spew…. bulshit.

  10. “many of whom contribute heavily to efforts to finance charter schools and weaken teachers’ unions.”

    It just wouldn’t be a New York Times article if it didn’t include some out of place, self-fellating bitchfest about how private schools are to blame for the screwups of public schools.

  11. Another case of special interests caring only about themselves. Special interests should NOT have the power to deny 350,000 students their education! California should regard this as a cautionary tale; our teachers union has shown an utter disregard for student welfare when it gets in the way of their agenda, and they are at LEAST as powerful as the CTU, if not far more so. California needs to reduce special interest power, or we could find MILLIONS of people left without services if the legislature puts a toe out of line. Maybe that’s why we haven’t seen any real pension reform…

    1. The California Teachers Association has a stranglehold on the California legislature. As with any public union, they are hellbent on amassing as many benefits and protections for themselves as possible, and they are more than willing to tell taxpayers, children and everyone else to eff off. Help curb union influence by voting yes on Prop. 32.

  12. This is pretty much why I think Obama’s foreign policy, as bad as it is, is way preferable to Romney’s. His purporters seem to think the world is some campy 80s action movie where all our problems would be solved if we just killed enough people.

  13. Standardized testing is the worst thing to happen to students since teachers unions. Not sure why Reason wouldn’t take a stand in this article against standardized tests. They’re a tool of the government to quantify, collectively, the success or failure of large groups of students so that the Department of Education can alter policy to make sure ‘no child is left behind’. Standardized testing is inherently anti-individualism.

    1. Question, do teachers within their classroom have a form of standardized tests? Maybe the problem is what type of question is asked. If we don’t test our students, how do we know if they have learned anything on the subject?

      1. Who said anything about not testing the students? I just don’t think standardized testing should be used.

  14. Obama to Rahm, “What the hell are you doing? Just pay them goddammit! Get this out of the news cycle now!!”

  15. The schools are another victim of increasing centralization. From the 1950’s till now the slow creep of bureaucratic bloat has lowered the quality and vastly raised the cost of education. Instead of having 10,000 local battles to fight the zealous left-wing ‘reformers’ just go to the top of the pyramid to control the curriculum. Now that the American welfare state has brought the nation to the edge of total collapse we should resolve, after that collapse, to decentralize as much as possible.

  16. Ok, let’s correct some of this stupidity.

    Teachers are supposed to work longer hours for substantially less pay (e.g., reduced raise, increased healthcare premiums)? For the sole reason, that becoming a teacher should relegate you to a life of poverty. Additionally, nearly half of all student in CPS are in special education. Meaning they are technically either mentally retarded, have serious behavioral issues, or exhibit learning disabilities. And teachers are supposed to be evaluated based on their test scores compared to whom? Private schools which don’t have to admit these kids? Please, show me you have any even remotely reasonable opinions on this matter.

  17. I’m surprised you don’t call teachers “thugs”. That pejorative is just about the only item lacking from your slanted story. Like every other profession, teachers have a few bad apples who bring down the rest of them. However, the overwhelming majority are hard-working, caring, highly-educated men and women committed to the students they teach. Teachers’ unions and other unions are far more democratic than the US congress itself. No super majorities or filbusters get in the way of the members’ will.

    The wage issue is only one aspect of the strike. What is wrong with teachers expecting higher pay for longer days and longer years? Name any worker who doesn’t expect more compensation for more work.

    Standardized performance testing is unfair, especially in urban settings where students are so disadvantaged that they can’t possibly compete with suburban kids who get an actual three square meals a day.

    But another legitimate strike issue is the lack of resources in inner-city schools. A documentary I viewed showed the palatial, fully equipped schools of suburbia juxtaposed with the crumbling under-supplied, semi-condemned downtown structures. Contrary to your claims, there is no way that urban schools are having money thrown at them.

    1. bunnyduet said:
      “What is wrong with teachers expecting higher pay for longer days and longer years?”

      Well, for starters, teachers unions usually complain simultaneously about being underpaid for overwork and classes that are too large. Well, guess what? Given a fixed public for teachers’ salaries, if I pay each teacher more money, then I must hire fewer teachers. This results in fewer teachers doing more work with larger classes, which causes them to complain that they are underpaid for overwork and classes that are too large. Eventually, I assume we’ll go down to one public school teacher teaching everyone in the state, complaining that he isn’t paid enough to do such a big job well.

    2. bunnyduet also said:
      “Standardized performance testing is unfair, especially in urban settings where students are so disadvantaged that they can’t possibly compete with suburban kids who get an actual three square meals a day.”

      If I listened to what teachers unions say about this subject, I should conclude that public education should be abandoned. After all, teachers unions themselves have informed us that they can produce no measurable effects on the children they teach. How, then, can we make rational sense of the notion that spending more money on them will solve the problem, since we cannot measure the effects it would produce? Why should we driving state budgets broke attempting to accomplish immeasurable impacts on children?

      Unless, of course, I could use testing to measure the progress of individual students and classrooms, which points out the straw man argument of claiming that we must compare worse-performing classrooms to better ones.

  18. But another legitimate strike issue is the lack of resources in inner-city schools. A documentary I viewed showed the palatial, fully equipped schools of suburbia juxtaposed with the crumbling under-supplied, semi-condemned downtown structures. Contrary to your claims, there is no way that urban schools are having money thrown at them.

    Charter schools should be called out for what they are, for-profit entities which may make grand promises initially, but renege on them in the long run in order to increase profits.

    The President stayed out of it because he SHOULD stay out and let the bargaining process run its course. President Reagan DIDN’T, with the air traffic controllers, and set a horrible example for democracy.

    In conclusion, your article simply scapegoats teachers and anything associated with the President or the Democratic Party. If you had any insight into the nurturing, “make it a better world ” mindset of teachers, you would blush with embarrassment.

    1. bunnyduet said:
      “If you had any insight into the nurturing, “make it a better world ” mindset of teachers, you would blush with embarrassment.”

      It’s always such a coincidence how frequently “making it a better world” so closely corresponds to “give me more money and power.”

  19. Whew! So much anger on all sides. I have a modest proposal, and I am making it as someone who has spent 35 years teaching high school English in public, private, and parochial schools across the country. Here is it:

    We need to stop focusing so much on how education is delivered, and focus on what is delivered. Specifically, we need to make our primary goal be that all students become avid readers. That is a goal now that is not even on the radar screen for most public, private, charter, or parochial schools. Schools now, in the name of “teaching reading skills” turn reading into a boring, tedious chore for most students.

    Avid readers read better. They understand tone and nuance; they can follow complicated plots; they can process difficult science or history texts. Avid readers write better, as they acquire a sense of written language and structure that simply can’t be taught. Avid readers have wider, deeper frames of knowledge that make all learning easier. Even reading fantasy or science fiction teaches about government structures, about the use of power, about the possibilities of science. My own experience is that avid readers tend to be more compassionate, perceptive people, as they have had thousands of narrators explain different people’s motivations and understandings.

    It’s not that hard for teachers to turn kids into avid readers, if it is made an absolute priority in the schools. I did it for years.

  20. Here’s my take. I’ve been a teacher in LA for 25 years. The solution to the problem of teacher evaluation is to get the students that don’t care about their education, out of the classroom. You will never hear any side discuss this situation. But frankly at the high school level many periods a day teachers have to deal with, to be nice disrespectful students, everyday, every period. This takes a lot out of a teacher and the students who want to learn don’t get the education they deserve. If you get the discipline problem out of the classroom, then go ahead and evaluate me, I now have students who just want to learn which is why I became a teacher.

  21. In the end they get their rights and demands by the government, this strike is continuing from last week finally end with the solution.

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