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Chicago Teachers Strike Highlights ‘Societal Problem’

by Fawn Johnson
National Journal
September 19, 2012

There is a bright spot to the Chicago Teachers Union strike that ended Tuesday after keeping the city’s kids at home and its public-school teachers picketing the streets: People are actually talking about education.

They are saying things like this: “When you have two-thirds of our children not college- and/or career-ready and we spend more per student than any country in the world, that is a societal problem. What’s going on in Chicago is sort of a leading indicator of things to come.” That’s Florida’s former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush on MSNBC. Bush is an advocate of student assessments who occasionally clashes with teachers unions.

Or this: “The more difficult task is to make sure the right people are getting into the classroom. I think it is the wrong mental model to let anybody in and then make it easier to fire our hiring mistakes.” That’s National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel on C-Span. NEA is not involved in the specifics of the strike, but it is supporting the Chicago union in principle.

Voters care greatly about education. In a Pew Research poll earlier this year, 72 percent of respondents rated education as “very important” to their vote. Yet both presidential candidates have largely ignored the concept in their campaigns. For whatever reason, education isn’t the kind of winner that moves the dial for a candidate in the electorate.

“People typically put education in their top three, or at worst, top six issues. But I believe they don’t know how to vote on education. They are so convinced that schools are local,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a group that is critical of teachers unions.

Allen says the Obama administration isn’t weighing in on the Chicago dispute because it is afraid of offending the unions. Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a brief statement last week saying he hopes the parties can “settle this quickly.”

Union officials say it would be inappropriate for a president or a presidential candidate to weigh in. They say the national conversation with Obama is settled. The unions have by and large made peace with President Obama about his Race to the Top competitive grant program, which rewards states for teacher evaluations and turning around or closing failing schools. Both of those issues are at the heart of the Chicago dispute. Still, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten is one of many union officials who say that the issues in Chicago are “very localized.”

Meanwhile, the presidential campaigns have not touched the thorniest of education issues that are also raised by the strike—student assessments, teacher evaluations, and failing schools. President Obama has chosen to focus on higher education, highlighting student loans and the high cost of college as part of his narrative on jobs. Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s few mentions about education have been about school choice, proposing vouchers and state-wide open enrollment for disadvantaged kids.

The advantage of the public attention raised by the Chicago strike is that it gives educators and policymakers the chance to publicly grapple with the genuine qualitative issues that affect all schools. How much do you hold teachers responsible for? What employment guarantees are teachers entitled to? Should the answers to those two questions impact teachers’ pay?

A poll conducted last week for the Chicago Sun-Times showed that 47 percent of Chicago’s registered voters support the teachers union, and less than 20 percent think that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is doing a “good” or “excellent” job in handling it. The approval of the union may slide as the strike drags on, however. No matter what happens in the talks, the union will be able to declare victory in the end if they win any concessions.

Pay attention now that it’s over. Center for Education Reform’s Allen thinks that a perceived victory on the part of the unions in Chicago will cause Democratic mayors in other cities to pause before pushing for anything that looks like merit pay or other teacher-employment decisions based on performance.

Timid Democrats in schools can only strengthen Republicans’ position with the public, at least the half who dislike unions. “It will bolster the case and cause of the accountability-minded reformers, who are often Republicans,” Allen predicted. Included on that list is Jeb Bush, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Idaho Superintendent Tom Luna, who wrote the Republican National Committee’s education platform.

Democrats who have pushed for accountability—Emanuel, Duncan, and House Education and the Workforce ranking member George Miller, D-Calif., to name a few—will need to recalibrate their approach. It will remind everyone of what the education-policy community has been saying all along: The only way to dramatically improve public education is through bipartisan collaboration. If that seems an anathema now, perhaps the Chicago negotiations can make it seem a possibility.

Unfortunately, the talk about the strike has degenerated quickly into accusatory statements like these from Weingarten and former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee—former adversaries in the scuffle over Washington public schools’ teacher layoffs in 2009.

Here’s Weingarten on Bloomberg TV: “What you’re seeing play itself out in Chicago is this fixation on accountability, top-down sanctions, and fear.”

Here’s Rhee’s statement on the second week of the strike: “If it were about the kids, 350,000 students would be in class tomorrow morning instead of at home or on the streets.”

The blame game continues, which eventually will cause voters to tune out. Steve Peha, and education consultant and founder of the nonprofit Teaching That Makes Sense, recently spent a week in two elementary schools in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. “Tough place to be a kid. Tough place to be a teacher. Tough place to be alive,” he observed on National Journal’s Education Experts blog. “What I can’t see is the value for management in squeezing labor, or the value for labor in holding out.”