Chicago teachers stifle reform

Sept. 17, 2012

By Steven Greenhut

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

The walkout provided a fresh reminder that teachers unions exist to expand the pay and protections for teachers, not to help “the children.” Unions protect their worst-performing members, which is why Chicago 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 teachers from accountability.

The only thing that makes teachers’ unions more angry than having their members subjected to performance tests are plans to subject them to competition through charter schools and tuition vouchers.

Note also the type of people who rise to union leadership. The only enjoyable aspect of the Chicago-strike spectacle is watching two bullies — Emanuel and the leader of the union — battle it out in front of the TV cameras.

It also was interesting to see how the strike split the Democratic coalition. As the New York Times reported, “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 pushed by Mayor Emanuel, a 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 success of students held hostage by the mismanaged and bureaucratic Chicago school system. And, whatever progress Emanuel makes under the settlement, the system will slog along in its current shape, one way or another.

Too 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 about 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 is 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.

Taking on unions

The best news about the Chicago strike was that a prominent Democratic official was at least willing to take on the unions, even though he may not have come away with much.

Republicans tend to represent suburban and rural school districts, where education is tolerable. California education expert Lance Izumi penned a book about suburban school districts, “Not As Good As You Think: The Myth of the Middle Class School,” 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 typically 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 solidly Democratic areas, we will see more serious Democratic officials taking on the biggest obstacle to reform, the unions.

There’s a reason low-income 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 align with the powerful and privileged teachers’ unions.

As Sally Kohn wrote last week 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 deserved 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 schools and charter schools located in tough urban areas? Why are they so willing to leave so many poor kids behind?

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

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Write to him at [email protected]


Write a comment
  1. Queeg
    Queeg 17 September, 2012, 08:09


    Reply this comment
  2. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 17 September, 2012, 10:38

    Chicago school teachers average pay= $105K, top 5% in the nation.

    Reply this comment
  3. Queeg
    Queeg 17 September, 2012, 11:29

    Good for them

    Reply this comment
  4. Edward Steele, Chief Investigator
    Edward Steele, Chief Investigator 17 September, 2012, 13:36

    LOL– The repubs want to kill public education– and then don’t understand why they are behind in the polls and in a dying party!

    Reply this comment
  5. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 17 September, 2012, 14:23

    Queeg/Eddie…….you just don’t get it.

    Seiler put it perfectly a few days ago……perhaps you missed it. (See the very end of “Explaining Obama”, 9/6/12:

    “The federal government is bankrupt and soon will be downsized massively. No matter who is president.”

    It’s all blowing up……or melting away. However you want to phrase it. Just a matter of time.

    Reply this comment
  6. Queeg
    Queeg 17 September, 2012, 14:46

    You doomers are hilarious!

    Reply this comment
  7. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 17 September, 2012, 16:46


    You know what’s funny, Queeg? What really “hilarious”?

    ……..I thought “doomers” hilarious as well, three or four years ago. But fast forward to 2016, and we are $20-$22 trillion in debt, and that pile of unfunded promises has grown from $300 trillion or whatever it is to $400 trillion……

    …I’m just saying you know what happens to houses of cards – in fact every house of cards ever constructed.

    Reply this comment
  8. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 17 September, 2012, 17:28

    LOL– The repubs want to kill public education– and then don’t understand why they are behind in the polls and in a dying party!

    LOL– The troughies want to kill the country– and then don’t understand why they are behind in the polls and in a dying party!

    Reply this comment
  9. Queeg
    Queeg 17 September, 2012, 17:35

    Yawn. Doom patrol……pants on fire…..yadda yadda do!

    Reply this comment
  10. Hondo
    Hondo 17 September, 2012, 19:49

    Chicago teachers are the highest paid, besides the Kalifornia teachers. And the kids in those districts have some of the lowest test scores and highest dropout rates. Kali is 47th and 48th in reading and math. Real dollars spent on education has doubled since 1970 and the kids test scores in the big cities keep going down.

    Reply this comment
  11. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 17 September, 2012, 19:57

    Just keep your head buried in the sand, Queeg.

    The Magnitude of the Mess We’re In

    Reply this comment
  12. Queeg
    Queeg 17 September, 2012, 21:26

    Queeg is not a gloomer….

    Reply this comment
  13. Queeg
    Queeg 18 September, 2012, 07:29

    Tonto concurs-

    Reply this comment

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