With all that’s happening in Chicago in The Washington Post Jane Hannaway and I look at 5 myths about the teachers unions. In Chicago the teachers strike looks to be headed to a conclusion on Sunday. Lots of details to be filled in still. At this point it’s probably safe to say three things:
First, the mayor and the teachers union got a little roughed up here. Regardless of the final details this was not a PR victory for either side. Second, even if you think some of the Chicago Teachers Union demands were outrageous – I did – it’s also clear that Chicago teachers are understandably frustrated with a host of things from perceived political slights to actual policy decisions. That doesn’t justify the strike in my view but those concerns shouldn’t be disregarded out of hand either. Third, if there is a clear winner it’s the charter schools.* While Chicago kids collectively lost more than 5 million hours of learning this week the charters were open. Their already long waiting lists are sure to swell more after this. And because of state law and local practices charters in Chicago are not as controversial as their counterparts elsewhere going into this week. By staying out of this they had a good week all around.
More generally, three broader observations:
The strike was a national story, but one without local players. All week long education policy types have poured out of the woodwork to comment on the strike in the national media. Who didn’t talk much? All the key players in the strike. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is rarely described as camera shy but he’s steered clear of national media. Likewise American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was in Chicago and working behind the scenes. But while it’s usually pretty dangerous to get caught between Weingarten and a TV camera this week she was unusually quiet only popping up sporadically in niche media. Karen Lewis the bombastic president of the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago’s school superintendent also flew under the radar.
Some of this stems from a shared desire not to blow up a complicated and sensitive negotiation. But it also looks like there was a tacit détente. No one wanted to nationalize the issue less than two months before an election. Chicago is the President’s hometown and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used to be in charge of the Chicago schools. Weingarten, meanwhile, has tirelessly tried to cultivate an image as a reformist union leader and clearly doesn’t want to be tied to Karen Lewis or positions that are at odds with steps she’s publicly championed elsewhere. (Considering all the ways this could have gone badly for Weingarten, regardless of the final contract details this episode turned out pretty well for her and she probably belongs in the winner’s column of any scorecard). It was awkward all around and that helps explain why the narrative in Chicago was so different than the narrative in the national media.
The strike was unavoidable. Some political theater is to be expected in contentious teacher contract negotiations. Sophisticated union leaders and school administrators understand that politics sometimes requires a public dance – read attacks and counterattacks – even when the outline of a deal is already clear. That’s because all sides have political constituencies to appease. It’s important to remember that teachers union leaders are elected by their members. In many places if you allow yourself to be perceived as too cozy with management and you’re going to lose your job – that’s how current CTU President Karen Lewis won her election. The union leader in Washington, D.C. who made a deal with Michelle Rhee to reform that city’s teacher contract? He’s not a union leader anymore. It’s a pattern.
Given CTU President Karen Lewis’ rough relationship with the mayor and political need to show her members – many of whom are very frustrated with the status quo – that she was fighting hard for them, short of complete capitulation by the city I doubt there was any chance Chicago kids would have been in school this week under any circumstance. It’s pretty clear the union needed at least some strike and realized that one would be good for them.
Paradoxically, if you like teachers unions you should be hoping for an even deal (or even for the mayor to prevail). It seems backward to think that teachers union proponents should hope the city does well negotiations, but here’s why they should. On NPR’s Diane Rehm show on Wednesday education analyst Rick Hess and I were discussing the strike and he pointed out the difference between Chicago and what happened in Wisconsin last year. In Wisconsin Democratic-leaning education groups opposed Republican Governor Walker’s reforms to public sector unions, including teachers. In Chicago the same groups are staunchly standing with the mayor Hess noted. The reason though is not partisanship, it’s the difference in the two situations.
Wisconsin was fundamentally about whether teachers should be able to bargain collectively while Chicago was about specific demands for a new contract. That’s no small distinction (and see this news about Wisconsin’s law). But, if the teachers unions can’t show that collective bargaining doesn’t mean unchecked or irresponsible demands expect Walker’s approach to move from the margins to the mainstream as more and more cities and states are forced to confront the dual challenge of lousy schools and a shrinking public purse just as Chicago was. And that might be the biggest lesson of the strike – it’s a prelude to hard issues that will emerge elsewhere and if they’re not careful the unions will lose the war by winning these battles.
*In 2010 I did a small amount of consulting reviewing an application from a charter school group in Chicago for federal grant funds.