Will Emanuel Get Tough with Striking Teachers?

Some believe the long-anticipated Chicago teachers strike, which began this morning, represents an inevitable showdown in the spiraling war between the education reform movement and the nation’s teachers unions. We think it’s more specific than that. We believe it’s more of a case of Democrats vs. Democrats, and a crucial test of the strength of the reform movement within the nation’s oldest political party.

The outcome could have broad implications for inner-city public school districts across the nation.

Most Republicans have been on board with education reform for years, and the leaders of that party have demonstrated their willingness to go nose-to-nose with teachers unions over the quality of public education. GOP governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana (among others)  have forced unions in their states to accept deep and meaningful reforms.

But the movement is relatively new to Democrats. That’s not surprising, considering the party is the traditional defender of organized labor in the public and private sectors.

In recent years, organizations like Democrats for Education Reform have sprung up. Democratic mayors in large cities across the nation have attacked the unions and called for radical changes in public schools. A very liberal Democratic president and his education secretary have been promoting increased accountability for teachers and tough turnaround plans for failing schools.

But are the leaders of the Democratic Party willing to back up their tough words with action, particularly in the midst of a tough presidential campaign when union support could be critical for their chances to maintain the White House?

We’re beginning to have our doubts.

The frightening fact is that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the district’s school board have already given up way too much at the bargaining table, yet the Chicago Teachers Union still walked out on strike. Instead of drawing a hard line in the sand at this critical juncture, the school board appears willing to continue to negotiate on crucial topics like a new teacher evaluation system.

It appears as though the CTU may get just about everything it wants by the time this strike is over. That would be a huge defeat for the students of the district and a very bad precedent for other troubled school districts in urban areas throughout America.

Teachers unions in other cities will suddenly feel emboldened to walk out on their students as well, based on the assumption that the Democratic leaders in their communities will prove to be just as weak as Chicago officials when push comes to shove.

Education reformers across the nation are counting on Mayor Emanuel to keep that from happening by taking a strong position against the CTU. But thus far it appears he’s letting everyone down.

Will strong actions back up tough words?

Emanuel stood on stage at last week’s Democratic National Convention and praised President Obama for his education reform policies.

Last night he stood before the media in Chicago and announced, “The kids in Chicago belong in the classroom. Our kids do not deserve this.”

The mayor is correct about that, and he should back up his words with bold action that sets a precedent in this crucial war. The fact is that the CTU has stabbed the children of Chicago in the back. The kids are being denied their right to a public education through no fault of their own.

Emanuel should act boldly to stop this travesty now. He should cite the precedent set by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, when he gave striking air traffic controllers a deadline to end their walkout, then backed up his words by firing them when they failed to heed his warning.

Reagan told the air traffic controllers they had no right to jeopardize public safety with a strike. Emanuel should tell the CTU that it has no right to interrupt the educational process for students, and give them 48 hours to report back to work.

If they ignore his warning, they should be fired and replaced as soon as possible. The mayor’s message would be simple but powerful: Public education is for children and only children. In Chicago they come first. If CTU teachers no longer want to teach them, the city will find teachers who are willing to do the job.

But nothing like that is likely to happen, based on the depressing path this situation has followed.

The surest sign is that CTU President Karen Lewis has admitted that the two sides have made significant progress in contract negotiations. Unfortunately she’s correct.

This whole mess started when Emanuel correctly lengthened one of the shortest school days in the nation by 90 minutes, to make sure the underserved students of the district received more instruction. The union howled in protest, demanding extra pay for extra work.

Then negotiations began, and the district agreed to call back more than 400 laid off teachers to absorb the extra work, at a cost of millions of dollars to the district. That means most existing teachers will not have to put in any more classroom time at all. Score one point for the union.

Then David Vitale, the president of the Chicago school board, announced over the weekend that the district, despite a budget deficit quickly approaching the $1 billion mark, has already agreed to give teachers a 16 percent raise over the next four years, which will cost the district even more millions of dollars that it doesn’t have. He also acknowledged that the school board has backed down from its demand to introduce merit pay to reward outstanding teachers.

But perhaps most frightening was Vitale’s acknowledgement that the school board has offered “some give on evaluations.” That means that a plan to introduce more teacher accountability in the district is under attack at the bargaining table, and its defenders may surrender on that key point, as well.
 

The CTU only has excuses to offer

In a news conference yesterday, Lewis told reporters that the real problems facing Chicago students are poverty and the prevailing culture of violence in many of the city’s worst neighborhoods.

“There are too many factors beyond our control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests, such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control,” Lewis said.

She was essentially saying that teachers cannot be expected to adequately instruct students, and should not be held accountable for their progress, because socio-economic conditions make learning impossible.

Is that really acceptable to the parents of Chicago?

Lewis and her liberal allies believe the situation can be addressed through massive social programs designed to defeat poverty and suddenly turn every Chicago household into a prosperous, functional unit. Once the gap between the haves and the have-nots has been closed, they believe the culture of drugs, violence and ignorance will disappear, and children will suddenly be able to learn.

Lewis, of course, if full of beans. The troubled culture in some areas of Chicago and other cities has more to do with a lack of moral standards and the breakdown of the family union than any economic factors. American history is full of stories of poor families that have embraced public education and proudly watched their children take advantage of their opportunities to earn a better life.

Social problems in cities like Chicago are not going to disappear tomorrow, and probably never will completely.  School districts in these areas need talented, dedicated instructors who are determined to overcome socio/economic barriers and make sure kids learn, despite the extra challenges. It’s a very tough job, but other teachers in other cities (particularly in non-traditional schools) have proven it can be done.

The CTU’s list of excuses about why kids can’t learn won’t benefit anyone. Chicago Public Schools must push the excuses aside, work to overcome the obstacles, and get the job done.

The union teachers who cannot get the job done should be replaced. That could be accomplished through a tough new evaluation system that demands solid performance, evidence of improvement or termination. Lewis knows that such a system would probably cause a lot of turnover in union ranks.

As one news report put it, Lewis is concerned “about the possibility of a large termination of teachers under a new evaluation system.”

We’re concerned that Emanuel and the school board will cave on this issue as well, and drop their demands for any sort of meaningful evaluation system. That would mean that most teachers would retain their jobs, and the dismal results we’ve been seeing in Chicago – like the 56 percent graduation rate – will continue uninterrupted.

The pundits are correct when they describe the Chicago teachers strike as a major battle in the war to reform and improve public education. The sad fact is that the wrong side is winning.

If the mayor and school board cave on too many more issues, the failed status quo will survive and thrive, and the families and children of Chicago will continue to get the short end of the educational (and economic) stick.


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