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The Conservative Curmudgeon
Octobr 6, 2012

Chicago Teacher Strike Reflected
a “Public-Be-Damned” Attitude

by Allan C. Brownfeld

ALEXANDRIA, VA — The Chicago teachers’ strike, with almost no warning, canceled classes for 350,000 students who had just returned from summer vacation. It forced tens of thousands of parents to find alternatives for idle children, including many whose neighborhoods have been racked by gang violence in recent months. This strike reflects a public-be-damned attitude on the part of the teachers union.

The average Chicago teacher’s salary is $76,459 per year, compared to $47,000 for the average Chicago citizen. The union demanded a 30 percent pay increase over two years, with 24 percent coming in the current school year. The union rejected a 16 percent pay raise offered by arbitration.

The union’s demands focus attention on the poor performance of Chicago's public schools. Seventy-nine percent of eighth-grade students are not grade-level proficient in reading, and 80 percent are not proficient in math. Barely more than 55 percent of high-school students graduate.

Another issue in the strike was the manner in which teachers are evaluated. An Illinois state law requires school systems to put in place an evaluation system in which a teacher’s total rating depends partly on student test scores. Half of the states have agreed to create similar teacher evaluation systems that take into account student achievement in exchange for grants under the federal Race to the Top program or for greater flexibility under the No Child Left Behind law.

Something is seriously wrong with the manner in which teachers in Chicago are evaluated. A 2009 report by the New Teacher Project found that 94 percent of the city’s teachers received “superior” or “excellent” ratings. Considering the poor performance of Chicago’s schools, it is impossible to say that nearly all of its teachers are superlative. It is clear that the evaluation system must be altered.

The Chicago strike had little support. Big city mayors, often beholden to teachers’ unions for support, are increasingly aware of the negative role such unions have played in resisting efforts at accountability. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaragosa, a Democrat, said that the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which he chairs, “unanimously supports student growth over time as a measurement of teachers. These aren't radical notions. The public wants to see more accountability.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-Independent, said America’s public schools should not put the desires of employees above the needs of children: “Our school system should not be run for the people who work there. Our school system should be run for the students.”

The Chicago dispute shows how little support exists for those who reject accountability, even among Democrats who ordinarily support — and are supported by — teachers’ unions. "Who’s in their corner?" asked Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank. “The strike is definitely exposing some of the rifts within the Democratic Party and making them worse. You do see unions more isolated than ever before.”

The unions’ contempt for the children and families of Chicago was clear. The strike created serious financial strains for many families, particularly those without extra money for day care and without job flexibility. In the public schools, 87 percent of the students come from low-income families. More than 80 percent are African-American or Latino. The strike arrived after months of violence in Chicago — homicides were up 30 percent over last year.

Until recently, Chicago’s elementary school students had a school day almost an hour shorter than the national average and a school year two weeks shorter than the national average. Mayor Rahm Emanuel angered the teachers union by lengthening the school day — and year. Now, a child who begins in the school system will have an additional two-and-a-half years of learning time. The mayor called for more charters and different types of public schools so that parents would have additional choices for their children.

There is no simple answer to the question of how to improve our public schools. It is true that basing teachers’ compensation largely on student test scores may place at a disadvantage those teachers in communities with large number of poor students from one-parent families. Students coming to school prepared to learn do far better than those who do not. Still, there must be a way to judge the effectiveness of teachers, and efforts to improve our schools must grapple with this problem.

Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe says that getting teachers’ unions to embrace reform is like asking a cat to bark because the role of unions is to protect their members, both those who are competent and those who are not. Over the past 50 years, spending on K-12 education has skyrocketed. In 1960, Americans spent approximately $2,800 per student in today’s dollars. Now we spend roughly $11,000. This spending has not produced comparable gains in student outcomes. Instead, we score at or near the bottom in competitive international examinations.

 In the end, a compromise settlement was reached. For the first time, student test scores will be counted in teacher evaluations. The school day for elementary pupils was increased to seven hours from less than six. Teachers received raises of about 17 percent over four years.

Teachers’ unions hopefully will come to understand that they have a vested interest in the success of their students. No society will continue to embrace a public school system that costs more each year and produces less. The public-be-damned attitude adopted by the Chicago Teachers Union, if it is not abandoned, will make all of us — teachers, students, and parents — losers. It will find, and deserves, little public support.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2012 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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