[Guest Post] The Chicago Teachers Union: A New Hope for Public Education

CTU Labor Day Rally. Credit: CTU Facebook Page

After months of deadlocked negotiations with the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education, the 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union began their first strike in 25 years today, shutting down over 600 schools that serve over 400,000 students.  The 600 delegates of the CTU voted unanimously in favor of the measure at a meeting August 31, two months after 98 percent of members who cast a ballot authorized the union to call a strike.

Education activists across this country have greeted the CTU’s fight with much enthusiasm, for they see it as a fight for everything they believe in. Many think this strike has the potential to turn the tide against those who wish to privatize our schools and slash budgets across the country. Moreover, as perhaps the largest, best-organized strike since the 1997 UPS strike, it could re-ignite the American labor movement after decades of decline.

In this post I’ll attempt to put the struggle within the context of the nation-wide neoliberal attack on public education, go over the details specific to the fight in Chicago, and explain why you should be siding with the teachers and with universal, high-quality, fully-funded public education.

The Charter Menace

A charter school is a publicly-funded school that is not subject to the same rules and regulations as a regular public school, often run by non-governmental groups. As of December 2011, 2 million students attended the 5,600 charter schools in the US. This number has been increasing by 7 percent annually since 2006 [PDF]. Charter schools have been touted as the saviors of American education, perhaps most famously in the documentary Waiting for “Superman” by Davis Guggenheim. They have become something of a cause célèbre among America’s billionaires, like Bill Gates and various Wall Street philanthropists. They enjoy bipartisan support, taking an important role in Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and an even more important one in Obama’s Race To The Top.

But as I’ve learned these past few years, when the two parties in Washington agree on some issue, we have very good reason to be worried. Charter schools are no exception. A widely-cited study from Stanford University shows that though 17 percent of charter schools deliver the promised improvements, 37 percent actually perform worse than traditional public schools [PDF]. The ‘flexibility’ and ‘autonomy’ of charters may sound like good things in the abstract, but they’re of no use if they can’t produce better results. So why on Earth would so many influential people throw their weight behind a project that for the most part either changes nothing or actually makes education worse for American children?

Defenders of charter schools, like a certain ruling class rag, often point to the charters that do deliver spectacular results, and say that we just need to replicate that in all the other charters. But a closer look makes that picture seem implausible. One of the charters that’s often (rightfully) praised for its results is SEED, a boarding school in DC. What they don’t usually mention is that SEED spends $35,000 per student, while traditional public schools spend about a third of that on average. Another advantage of charters that’s often left unspoken is that, unlike neighborhood schools, charter schools are allowed to get rid of under-performing students as they please. Geoffrey Canada’s charter schools in Harlem, another oft-praised project, made extreme use of this privilege when they kicked out an entire class of middle school students for not being up to par. So it’s no surprise that they are able to perform better than traditional public schools: they can just get rid of anyone who could drag their scores down.

Finally, teachers from charter schools are generally not unionized. This may sound like a good thing to many in the current political climate, in which politicians on both sides of the aisle enjoy blaming teachers and their unions for the problems of public education. But the data do not lie: according to a well-regarded study from Arizona State University [PDF summary], schools with unionized teachers tend to produce better results. This should be common sense. Unions can bargain for better pay, better working conditions, and increased job security, all of which can attract better teachers, who can in turn provide a better education to students.

Of course, there are many other sources of threats to American public education, but I would clog the intertubes if I tried to write about all of them. A notable example is “Parent Trigger” laws, which would allow parents to take over an under-performing school and do with it as they please, including turning it into a charter schools. Such laws sound nice, even democratic in the abstract. But if we remove the sheep’s clothing that disguises them, we are left with just another plan to privatize public education. Like charter schools, parent trigger laws also have the support of the nation’s billionaires, as well as their own awful piece of Hollywood propaganda (which was apparently showed at the start of the DNC).

Not to mention more long-standing issues that have always plagued education in the United States. For example, since education is mostly funded by property taxes, poorer neighborhoods have always had lower-quality education, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Given the ample evidence for the failure of charter schools, I find no satisfactory answer for why anyone who genuinely wants to improve American education would support them. We must accept that American elites have no intention of improving public schools—after all, they can afford to send their kids to fancy private schools. The insistence on charters is not born out of compassion, but out of the realization that politicians cannot admit they want to gut public education and still tell their constituents they believe in the ideals of a liberal democracy. As Prof. Sanford Schram of Bryn Mawr has said, charter schools and other neoliberal reforms of the welfare state are merely Plan B for the world’s capitalists: a pragmatic response to the political impossibility of getting rid of welfare completely.

Let us now turn to how all of this is playing out in the city that gave birth to neoliberal ideology.

Rahm Emanuel Strikes Back

Rahm Emanuel at Obama’s Inauguration

Though Rahm presented himself as a ‘progressive’ guy when he was running for Mayor of Chicago, like all Democrats, his love for unions and public goods stops when he actually has to deal with them. As Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader has pointed out, Rahm’s plan could easily have been written by Mitt Romney’s aides (or perhaps been a part of Obama’s war on schools). Charter schools are the linchpin of Rahm’s plan for Chicago Public Schools, with 110 of them already up and running. The current, much protested CPS budget allocates $76 million to charter schools, a significant increase from last year’s budget. And surprise! Like elsewhere in the country, Chicago’s charter schools show no improvement over their more traditional counterparts.

To be fair to Rahm, he didn’t start Chicago’s charter school craze. It all goes back to Arne Duncan, the previous CEO of CPS (yes, they have a CEO). And guess what? He’s now Obama’s Secretary of Education. Looks like no attack on public education goes unrewarded in this country.

Merely adding charter schools to CPS wouldn’t sound so horrible, if it weren’t coupled with Rahm’s plan to get rid of Chicago’s failing schools. It begins with defunding: underperfoming schools get decreased budgets because CPS is suffering from a deficit. Faced with fewer teacherscrumbling facilities, and cuts in programs, parents flock to shiny new charter schools, which seems like the smart choice, given that they seem to be getting all the money. As a result, neighborhood schools have fewer students and worse results. CPS then uses this as an excuse to close or “turn around” schools—17 of them just last year.

Turnaround schools are schools that get restructured and put under a committee specially appointed to oversee their renewal. Most of the teachers and staff get kicked out, meaning that students are practically attending a new school. This seems like another kind-hearted plan to fix up Chicago’s failing education system, but the reality is far from it. The experienced teachers that get laid off are replaced with new hires, who not only get paid less, but are also worse for the kids, since years of experience is the most important factor in a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. In fact, turnaround schools underperform democratically-run schools by quite a margin.

As if that weren’t enough, turnarounds and closings disproportionately affect the neighborhoods of Chicago that most need quality education. Numerous studies have shown that socioeconomic class is the biggest predictor of student success or failure. And since social class and race are strongly tied in this country, that also means closings disproportionately affect black and latino students, who tend to live in the same neighborhoods in this highly segregated city.

Add to that Rahm’s plan for improving things: getting rid of the current pay system that rewards teacher experience, and instead reward teachers according to their students’ scores. That is, pay teachers that teach in poor neighborhoods less, and teachers that teach in fancy magnet schools more. Surely that will attract all the good teachers to the poor schools!

All of these “reforms” are being delivered by CPS’s Board of Education, which is appointed personally by the Mayor. The board is composed primarily of corporate executives, and has shown its ineffectiveness when compared to democratically elected school boards.

The situation is so dire it’s hard to think of anything we could do to help it. But thankfully, the Chicago Teachers Union has decided to take a stand and fight back against the education ‘deformers.’

The Return of the Teachers

CTU “ON STRIKE” picket signs. Credit: CTU Facebook Page

Now that the strike’s started, the airwaves will be flooded with pundits talking about how greedy the teachers are for wanting a raise that keeps up with inflation. But even though pay and benefits is all they’re allowed to talk about in negotiations with CPS according to state law, don’t let the media fool you: this struggle is about much more. It is about the soul of public education.

You can see it in the picket signs, you can feel it in conversations with teachers. They’re not just fighting for fair pay, though they obviously deserve that, too. They’re fighting for public education that’s freely accessible to all. Schools that won’t turn someone down because they didn’t win a lottery or because they have a learning disability. Schools with nurses (Chicago’s 684 schools are served by only 202 nurses) and libraries (164 schools are missing one). Schools that teach the arts and music and make well-rounded citizens, not just cheap workers to serve the needs of capital. Schools that provide a comprehensive education, because teachers know that teaching the test is not the way to educate a child. They want quality schools for all students, and not one kind of school for the rich white kids in the North Side and another for the poor black children in the South Side.

They don’t just want these things, they also know how to get them. Everyone should read their wonderful, well-researched proposal titled The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve. The Chicago Teacher’s Union has been fighting for these reforms for years, and not through the usual, top-down, “Don’t worry, the union bureaucracy will take care of it for you” approach many unions use. They’ve involved every member in a grassroots struggle to get back our schools from those who wish to turn them into baby-sitting businesses.

And if you don’t buy the baby-sitting business line, just read CPS’s guidelines for dealing with kids in their strike contingency plan. According to the Sun-Times, “non-teachers are told that when they ‘correct’ a student, they should do so in a ’15 second one-way communication,’ delivered within 3 to 4 feet of the student, but to ‘move away from the student 1-2 seconds before finishing.’”

This is not to downplay the inconveniences that parents and students will suffer due to the strike. Many poorer students relied on CPS for breakfasts and lunches, and many parents have no place to leave their kids other than at schools. Teachers are well aware of the damage this disruption in class schedules may have for students. But as one community organizer has said, it is current conditions that are most disruptive. In her words: “the disruption of not having air conditioning, or not having libraries in their schools.…When CPS closes their schools instead of investing in the schools, that’s what’s disruptive to students. And when CPS forces students in classrooms with 35 or 40 other children, that’s what’s long-term disruptive for our children.”

This strike has the potential to turn back the tide in favor of real education reform nationally. Teachers across the country are now looking to Chicago for hope and inspiration. Messages of solidarity  have been pouring in from every city in this country, and even some from abroad. Community and labor groups across Chicago have coalesced in the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign in order to support teachers in their struggle. And you can help too! Join us on the picket lines as we fight to beat back the corporate attack on our schools!

Mauricio Maluff is a senior at Northwestern majoring in math and philosophy. He is a member of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign and the International Socialist Organization. He blogs at The Foreigner’s View.

[Guest Post] The Chicago Teachers Union: A New Hope for Public Education

10 thoughts on “[Guest Post] The Chicago Teachers Union: A New Hope for Public Education

  1. 1

    Hi, Mauricio!

    I’m amazed at the fact that I knew nothing about this teachers’ strike until I read your post about it! You’d think I would’ve seen it mentioned in the newspaper.

    I live in the Kansas City area, which is another place where a lot of schools are being closed, merged, put under new management etc., and also where there are lots of charter schools. My mom has always seen the “school choice” movement for what it was, i.e. an attempt to erode funding for public schools. I was more naive, and thought that it really was about giving people more choices, and public funding to send their kids wherever they want while still keeping the public schools fully funded and functional. Conservative rhetoric so often takes the form of, “let’s give people more choices!” when really it’s about spending as little money on public institutions as they possibly can.

    (I have another dog in this fight in that I have autism, and benefited from a very good special-education program at my public elementary school in Iowa. It may well have been what I learned there that enabled me to go to college. And I know full well that private schools have no obligation to serve students with disabilities — only the public schools have to educate *everyone* who lives within their district! Because I’d like future generations of people with developmental disabilities to have the same opportunities I did — actually, I’d prefer to think they’ll have *more* opportunities than I did — I very much want the public-school system to survive.)

    Anyway, good luck, Chicago teachers!!

    1. 1.1

      Hi Lindsay!

      Thank you so much for your comment! I’m very glad you enjoyed my post. Yeah, rhetoric can often turn politics into a shell game, we must have a quick eye to spot were the ball went.

      The fact that charter schools don’t have to provide for students with disabilities is one of the things that most anger CTU teachers, and many of the most militant among them are the teachers that focus on special education. So this is definitely a big deal for the CTU.

      As for sources of good info on the CTU struggle, they’re pretty hard to come by in the mainstream media. The most consistently good (in my opinion) have been Substance News, Labor Notes, In These Times, and the ISO’s Socialist Worker.

      Thanks for your support!

  2. 2

    Interesting take on the strike, but I want to clear up a few misleading statements in your post.

    1. Charter schools are not allowed to pick and choose their students. The fact that Geoff Canada had to alter the grade structure of his school in order to ensure he only had students he deemed worthy is proof of that. There are certain charter schools that have extremely high standards and don’t promote kids to the next grade as haphazardly as most schools. The result is that many students choose to leave these schools rather than be held back. These outcome are often spun by charter opponents a proof charters are driving away the poor performers, but in reality these kids are choosing to leave rather than deal with high standards. While one could argue that extremely high standards might hurt students, there’s no way you can argue that having the choice to attend a school with extremely high standards is a bad thing.

    2. Most teacher evaluation systems are based on individual student level growth and take demographic and socioeconomic factors into account. That means a teacher in a rich suburban school is rated based on how much kids in a rich suburban school are expected to improve, and a teacher in a poor area is rated based in how much students living in poverty are expected to improve. No system has a straight nominal test score comparison between vastly different groups of students.

    3. Some charter schools spend more per pupil and some spend less. There’s not a significant trend in either direction (although it’s worth noting that massive pension obligations are generally not included in district per pupil spending even though they are essentially a piece of teacher compensation.)

    A few more points.

    1. Your argument against the parent trigger is essentially that rich people like it so it’s bad, and that I will lead to “privatization.” I wish you would have expanded more on this second point because privatization doesn’t really mean anything it of itself. The word has different socially constructed meanings to different people and so using the word “privatization” is not much of an argument for anybody that doesn’t already agree with you. Charter critics have taken the word to mean “evil businessmen destroying the education system,” but in practice, for me the word merely means schools that are publicly funded, held publicly accountable for their outcomes, and open to any student, where the people running it work for a non-profit rather than the government. For months I’ve been dying to hear a convincing argument for how we get to the doomsday scenario where schools are terrible because businessman have figured out how to usurp half their funding, but I’ve never heard it. In my eyes, believing in that scenario endorses such a lack of faith in our government and institutions that it’s disingenuous to also advocate that those same governments and institution should be the only ones allowed to run schools. In other words, the position seems to be that government is too stupid or corrupt to protect itself from pilfering businesses, but smart enough to be entrusted with the school system (and yeah, I know the response is that the current fight is about protecting the government from these pilfering businesses, but personally I don’t buy it.)

    That said, I think the parent trigger is a silly and unnecessary idea, but the way unions have fought it illustrates how they will turn on anything thy threatens their influence. From what I’ve heard from unions, when the education system is controlled by a strong mayoral office it’s an undemocratic process that will hand the school system over to big business. But when we let actual parents decide on the fate of their schools…that will also hand schools over to big business. What’s clear is that unions are opposed to any process that takes power out of their hands. Frankly, I don’t blame them for this. It’s what I would be doing if I worked for the union and strongly believed that teachers and their advocates know whats best for schools and students. But it important to know people’s motivations, whether it’s a technology CEO who works with charter schools or an official of a teachers union.

    2. I think you do a diservice to the whole debate by reinforcing the charter school / district school dichotomy. There are a wide variety of charter schools, and many are indistinguishable from district schools. Moreover, schools in every state are different. For example, New York has extremely strong authorizers who hold schools to high standards. In addition, charters in New York aren’t allowed to contract with for-profit companies and they have to meet enrollment and retention targets for at-risk student populations (e..g poverty, ELL, Sped). Not surprisingly, charters in New York significantly outperform district schools. The point is that charter schools are still relatively new, and I think it’s crazy for people to already have their minds made up about stifling change in a school system that’s still built for the 1940s.

    3. Finally, I think it’s telling that you focus so much on charter schools when writing about a dispute that ostensibly has nothing to do with them. It’s a sign that youre right — union president Karen Lewis wants this to be an ideological battle over the future of our education system rather than a tough negotiation over the financial issues that make up the majority of teacher demands. I think that’s a shame because the majority of people in education want the same thing — better schools with more funding. I wish there was a way to magically flip a switch that raised taxes on the rich and put it into the education system, but there’s not. I don’t really have a point here — just ending with a wimpering wish that there were a better way to resolve all this…

    1. 2.1

      Hi Eric!

      Whew, long comment you got there, could be a blog post of its own. Let’s see if I can reply to all your points, though I’m running on one hour of sleep, so I may not be too coherent.

      1. Sorry, I don’t think I was clear enough on this point. Sometimes it’s hard to know what I need and need not make clear to people on a topic I’ve been so enmeshed into for so long. With that point I was referring to the fact that, unlike neighborhood schools, there is no legislation that forces charter schools to take in students with special needs, learning disabilities, etc. So for example, the school I was picketing at today has classes for children that are mute, deaf, blind, autistic, etc., and it only has 600 students total. A charter school set up in the same district would have no need for such provisions, which gives them an extra budgetary advantage over neighborhood schools. This causes low enrollments and eventual closings of schools that do provide those services, and then students with special needs are forced into longer and longer commutes. This is a very important issue for CTU, perhaps best encapsulated in their chant “We teach ALL children!”

      As for the need for schools with high standards, I in fact completely disagree with you. I do not think we need schools that provide education for a select few that can handle its high standards, and I in fact think they’re extremely damaging to the fabric of society, including universities. I do not have the time to get into that too much, but I think this blog post on NLP sums it up quite nicely: http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/social_mobility_education_and_intelligence_the_emperors_old_underpants

      2. Regardless of the caveats, multiple studies show that merit pay is detrimental in education. Here’s one fairly comprehensive one: http://her.hepg.org/content/l8q2334243271116/

      Moreover, the system CPS was trying to implement does not really draw distinction between say, magnet schools and schools in poor neighborhoods. The main reason they were trying so hard to implement it is because they need it to get $37 million in federal grant money, connected to Obama’s awful Race To The Top program.

      3. I realize. I was specifically referring to the ones that are most often touted as “the future of public education.” Not coincidentally, those always seem to spend significantly more money per student, mostly from private donors.

      Second half:

      1. “held publicly accountable for their outcomes” This is an important point: it’s only on their outcomes. I think schools should be held accountable by those who use them, which is why I spoke in very good light of schools in Chicago ran by Local School Councils. Here’s the great article I cited: http://designsforchange.org/democracy_vs_turnarounds.pdf

      Note that CTU loves Local School Councils. The key point in the second part of your argument is “from what I’ve heard.” The difference between parent trigger and LSCs is that LSCs also give some voice to teachers, one teacher per council. Teachers who usually have at least a masters in education tend to know a thing or two about education when compared to parents, especially when there is so much money poured into propaganda for programs that frankly don’t seem any better than what we already have. This isn’t about “union power” vs. “parent power,” as the CTU chants, “parents, teachers, students united, we will never be divided.” It’s about community power, including teachers, parents and students vs. monetary power which attempts to exclude certain voices from their conversation for their own profit.

      As for the problems with privatization, perhaps I was writing my article for a more left audience, since I’m used to writing for a mostly socialist audience. Perhaps this case study in Ohio charter schools might convince you of the dangers of private control of public education: http://stateimpact.npr.org/ohio/2011/10/12/charters-schools-part-iii-cashing-in-on-education/

      As for “government” vs. “business,” I completely disagree with the dichotomy you present. It’s not that government is “too weak” to resist “pilfering business,” I believe government exists solely to protect the pilfering businesses. Which is why I don’t think the government should be running schools either, but they should all be run by their local school councils, with funding on a larger scale allocated through democratic means (and by democratic I do not mean “by means of an elected mayor,” but actual democracy). But this might be too big of a conversation to have here.

      2. It’s not about stifling change, it’s about change in what direction. One direction in fact reduces the little democratic control we have over our schools, while the other one increases it. As a socialist, I believe in the second, in which communities are empowered to run their schools, and not have them ran by third persons, no matter how “efficient” they might be.

      3. I disagree that you don’t have a point, I would say this is your best point. If the CTU struggle in Chicago has showed anything, it’s that communities in this city all agree that we need to put taxes on the rich and give them to our failing schools. Literally every person or car that drives by our pickets show their support, letter carriers stop at the door of schools, say hi to teachers, and don’t deliver their mail so they don’t have to cross the picket lines. Police men, often no friends of labor, join us in the picket lines, salute us and encourage us.

      If the CTU is not striking over a complete revamp of the education system, it’s because they’re not legally entitled to. As this great article on CNN tells us (http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/10/opinion/rhomberg-unions-strikes/index.html), there have been a myriad of regulations on the activities of unions since the 80’s that have dramatically reduced the rights of unions to a strike. This is not a side question to the problem of education, it is the core of it. If history shows us anything, it is that every piece of progressive legislation ever passed in this country would have never existed without strikes and direct actions. This is true of Social Security, the New Deal, Civil Rights, workers’ rights, even veterans’ rights. The reason why schools are failing, and the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer, is because teachers and non-teachers alike have been forbidden from striking to change that.

      I should have definitely talked more about the labor aspect of this, but another reason why this strike is so important is because it’s basically illegal. CTU has publicly admitted that they’re striking for things that they are not legally entitled to strike over, for example, note this line from their press release: “While new Illinois law prohibits us from striking over the recall of laid-off teachers and compensation for a longer school year, we do not intend to sign an agreement until these matters are addressed.”

      As such, this strike has the potential of reviving a labor movement that has lost much of its power due to the meekness of unions in the face of corporate and government lawyers. A reinvigorated labor movement, inspired by CTU, is our only chance of ever getting the schools, health care, and jobs we deserve. This is why this is so crucial.

      1. Don’t know how my first comment got so long. It started as one thought. I’ll try and keep this one short.

        First, I feel like our disagreement is a microcosm of the problems with our political institutions. We agree on many things on which we may both disagree with unino, but the nature of our A vs. B politics drives us each to opposite extreme. For example, I completely agree with you on the benefits of having schools run by local councils, but it’s worth pointing out that unions would fight this idea with all of their might if there were not requirements that union members were on these councils. Again, this may seem fine if you accept a priori that unions are good and know what’s best and therefore deserve more say, but I don’t think that’s a very democratic or socialist way of viewing things. So the question is, are you really in favor these councils, or are you in favor of the solution most likely to consolidate power among your allies?

        I suppose a if you’re a socialist you may accept a priori that labor is right and should be supporter, and thus I think our fundamental disagreement comes to how we view the labor situation in education (though I admittedly don’t have a good enough grasp of socialist philosophy to go into great detail about this). In my mind, the situation is education is much different from the standard capital-labor arrangement you might see among a factory owner and his worker. The main reason for this is that unions have been the dominant power in education for most of modern history. This remains true even as their power has waned in the last 10 years. Like you, I want a system where everybody is receiving an education of equivalent quality, but the fact is that under the watch of unions our education system has failed to come up with big innovations for solving these problems. There are many reasons for this, but my personal belief is that the unions have not gotten the job done. Furthermore, union power is built upon our current unequal system. While they are fully in favor of incremental changes to decrease inequality, they will oppose large scale change with the potential to make enormous progress because that change will pose a threat to their influence (this is how many view their die-hard opposition to a very young and very small charter school movement). I initially brought up the choice of schools with high standards to illustrate the double standard of teacher’s unions that support these kinds of schools (as long as they’re unionized), only the schools unions support separate kids based on test scores rather than lotteries (a much less socialistic practice in my view.) I’m not saying that unions aren’t working hard to create the more equal society you and I both want, but that they will always be limited to solutions that maintain their influence. Finally, the labor situation in education is also unique in that the “capital” are not wealthy businessman and investors. If teachers want a bigger piece of the pie that will come out of school buildings, school supplies, or other programs for the poor rather than company profits. Don’t take this to mean that I’m accusing you of supporting teachers for semantic reasons, but I don’t think the labor dispute and union motivations are quite as clear cut as it is in other scenarios.

        Two more specific responses:

        1. In many states legislation does require charter schools to take students with disabilities — that’s the nature of a lottery — and I think eventually this will be the case everywhere. Because of their small scale certain charters can’t serve students with certain disabilities, but that’s true of district schools as well. It’s also worth noting that one of the larger charter networks in New York is attempting to pool its schools resources to better serve students with disabilities (i.e. having each school in the network specialize in a disability rather than having all of them try to serve all kids), but unions are opposed to this for…well, basically no reason other than the fact that it will allow charters to make their criticism obsolete. (http://gothamschools.org/2012/06/18/bill-to-help-charters-serve-high-needs-students-finds-foe-in-union/)

        2. Regarding teacher evaluations, I think the big problem with union quibbling is that it all seems like a stall tactic to prevent a rating system from ever happening. If I was in charge, on day one I would tell the union they could come up with whatever system they wanted, but if a teacher finished in the bottom X% for Y number of years (e.g bottom 20% for 3 years) they could be fired. Would the union accept this? I’m not sure. If their position is that it’s impossible to create a system that can fairly rate teachers, that’s an acceptable position, but they should argue that. Similarly if they believe even a teacher who ranks in the 12th percentile is better than whoever would replace them, they should argue that too. But they don’t seem to be making that argument either. Instead, their only position is that whatever system has been designed that will allow teachers to be fired is bad.

        That said, I appreciate your response Mauricio. It’s gotten me to think about a lot of things that had been idling in the back of my mind.

        1. “but it’s worth pointing out that unions would fight this idea with all of their might if there were not requirements that union members were on these councils. ”

          And shouldn’t they? Don’t you think workers deserve to have a say in the place where they spend a half of their waking time? Plus, two teachers out of 12 or 13 board members doesn’t seem like much to ask for. Some call it socialism, some just call it plain old democracy. It’s not teachers running a school for their own benefit, it’s teachers having a say in their own LIFE. Rahm was even trying regulate how much exercise a teacher does every week, how can you not think that’s outrageous? A boss has too much power over workers already, I’m just asking for teachers to have a bit of a say, not more than parents and students, just their fair share.

          “Unions have been the dominant power in education for most of modern history.”
          Seriously? That seems like a gross overstatement. There is no state (or even country) that I know of with educator run schools. At best we have elected school boards, which rarely have a person with any experience in education as president. Just look at Chicago’s with exactly zero members that have ever set foot in a school more than momentarily since they were 18.

          “the schools unions support separate kids based on test scores rather than lotteries”
          No teacher I know of (though I mostly know teachers in Chicago) supports this. CTU has been very outspoken in their criticism of magnet school, even though the president, Karen Lewis, taught at the best one in Chicago for 9 years. CTU supports the best education for everyone, and if you read their pamphlet, http://www.ctunet.com/quest-center/research/the-schools-chicagos-students-deserve, you’d see that they also have some pretty revolutionary proposals.

          I agree that the capital-labor situation is different, though I also think the state can basically be substituted by capital. It may not be the same in that there is no individual that owns CPS and runs it for profit, but it is certainly the same in that the CPS board is made up of one billionaire and eight millionaires who would certainly love to run it for their own profit. Pritzker, for example, took 5 million in public funds to build a hotel in Hyde Park while the schools in that district only needed 3 million to cover their deficit.

          “If teachers want a bigger piece of the pie that will come out of school buildings, school supplies, or other programs for the poor rather than company profits.”
          The thing is, they don’t. They just wanted a raise that kept up with inflation, and they already got that. Now many teachers are saying they’d gladly give even that up if they could get better schools in exchange. This strike is for their schools, not for a bigger share of the pie.

          And it’s not that I think unions are good a priori. I’m fully aware of all the horrible things unions have done in the past, like keeping men of color and women away from their unions and workplaces. But in this case, when it’s a battle between an arrogant mayor that seems hell-bent on breaking CTU and privatizing our schools, damn right I’ll side with the union. Perhaps more importantly, my review of the education literature has convinced me that the proposal CTU has is empirically more likely to produce good results in our schools. I am a scientist, if statistics say one proposal is better than the other, I’ll side with the better one. This is true regarding merit pay, charter schools, the longer school day, and really every point on Rahm’s proposal.

          On your specific points:

          1. That may be true in New York (I don’t know enough), but not in Chicago, where I’m doing my advocacy. The school I’ve been picketing at every morning, for example, is the only school in the neighborhood with services for students with disabilities, many of them with multiple disabilities. They have plenty of specialized teachers, and they provide a top quality education to those kids. And guess what? They’ve been trying to close it for three years. They say it’s too costly, and they have bad test scores. They completely ignore the fact that 95% of the students are low-income, and that’s why they have worse results than nearby schools. They completely ignore the fact that teaching students with disabilities is more costly in general.

          Which takes me back to my point about charter schools. It’s not that I’m opposed to them in general, neither are teachers’ unions. In fact, you might be interested to learn that the first major proponent of charter schools was Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers. But if there’s anything all Marxists agree on it’s that we must not base our politics on an ideal, but on material reality. And the fact is that charter schools are mostly not being use for good, but to get rid of services that students need, to pay workers less, and to cheapen education. And in extreme cases, such as Ohio, they’re being used to extract profit off of poor students, plain and simple. So although charter schools might be a great thing to have in future socialist society, the fact is that while there is room to profit off of them, capitalism will push us to do so at the cost quality education for all of our children. This is why teachers unions and myself are categorically opposed to charter schools, at least for now.

          2. “If I was in charge, on day one I would tell the union they could come up with whatever system they wanted, but if a teacher finished in the bottom X% for Y number of years (e.g bottom 20% for 3 years) they could be fired. ”
          How I wish you were in charge.

          “If their position is that it’s impossible to create a system that can fairly rate teachers, that’s an acceptable position, but they should argue that. Similarly if they believe even a teacher who ranks in the 12th percentile is better than whoever would replace them, they should argue that too.”
          Really? You must have some pretty bad union leaders wherever you’re at. In Chicago, these are exactly the arguments they’re making. They’ve been talking about the impossibility for a standardized tests to ever account for what goes on in a classroom or in a kids mind since Karen Lewis was elected president of CTU. Same with the second point, ever since 500 teachers were laid off last year they’ve been emphasizing that it’s impossible to replace the relationship those teachers have with their students, and the fact that young teachers are invariably worse than experienced teachers. In fact years of experience is by far the most important factor in a teachers performance, even according to standardized testing.

          Perhaps if they had a reasonable way to test teachers’ performance it would be ok. But the ones that CPS is proposing have been proven not to work.

          Again, thanks for your civil, thoughtful comments.

          1. Two quick points, then I’ll let you have the last word so we can move on with our lives.

            Re: teacher evaluation, I was talking about letting unions design whatever evaluation they want even if it doesn’t use test scores at all — i.e. it’s 100% principal observation. My point is that it appears unions believe that no system — even one they design in whatever way they want — is accurate enough to make teacher firing legitimate. You can see how that would drive people crazy — it means the official union position is essentially that no teacher can ever be fired (or fired without a lengthy appeals process) as long as they don’t violate major rules. People in most jobs don’t have that luxury.

            Re: the power of unions, yes, on a more local level certain bureaucrats are making a lot of decisions, but on the state level unions have a tremendous amount of power. Prior the Republican takeover in 2010, blue or purple states almost never passed any education legislation without union approval. I think the fact that we focus on union influence at different level is the root of a lot of our disagreement. I see unions as a coherent political force that exerts their power in seemingly every corner, while you see them a individual teachers who just want their actual lives to be a little bit closer to their ideal lives.

          2. I don’t know, where I’m at teachers mostly talk about standardized tests, not teacher evaluations in general. Look up Karen Lewis and firings or merit pay, I could not find one instance in which she didn’t respond to a question about it without talking about standardized tests. As she said, “the revolution will not be standardized.” A system like the one you proposed I could get behind, and I’m sure many if not most teachers would too. But I don’t think it’s ever been on the table.

            Really? In Illinois we have tons. Last one was SB 7, limiting the right to strike of teachers. Another one that comes to mind was IELRA, which limits all other kinds of teachers rights. There’s also the laws that regulate charter schools, and more examples than I have the time to cite. When was the last time education legislation passed without corporate approval?

            Lovely chatting with you. If you’re ever in Chicago, send me an e-mail and we can continue this debate over coffee.

  3. 3

    I’m a teacher in a low-SES, high-minority school in a very labor-hostile — and, to get straight to it, education-hostile — state.

    I have to go rearrange my entire unit plans thanks to 2 emails I just got today, so I can’t stay long.

    I just want to say — Mauricio, thank you for writing this. Miriam, thank you for giving it space on your blog.

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