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.