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Eye on the News

Christian Schneider
Beware of Backfire
Striking Chicago teachers may turn Illinois into Wisconsin.
11 September 2012

If Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has spent the last 18 months painting a portrait of public-employee unions as intransigent and selfish, the Chicago Teachers Union this week provided him with confirmation. On Monday, 25,000 Chicago teachers (average salary: $76,000 before benefits) walked out of their classrooms, leaving nearly 350,000 schoolchildren and their parents in the lurch. The teachers are fighting to protect their lavish pay and benefit packages and also trying to stave off a new accountability plan that would evaluate their effectiveness using students’ test scores.

The Chicago strike serves as a counterpoint to events in Wisconsin after Walker’s election in 2010. In a protracted, contentious battle, Walker virtually eliminated collective bargaining for public employees, weakening the unions’ power significantly. Illinois is now demonstrating what Wisconsin might have looked like without Walker’s reforms. Those reforms didn’t come easy: for a year and a half, Wisconsin was paralyzed by demonstrations and union disruptions. But the union tantrums in Wisconsin clearly backfired, and in a recall election this past June, Walker won by a greater margin than he had in 2010, against the same opponent. Walker is now a national star on the Republican scene, while public-union membership is plummeting.

There’s no reason to believe that the Chicago teachers’ strike won’t similarly backfire on union loyalists. For one, the teachers’ demands are well beyond what normal citizens consider just. In recent negotiations, the CTU rejected a 16 percent pay increase over the next four years, which in today’s economic climate would seem like a generous deal to virtually anyone who doesn’t work for a public-employee union. Instead, the union demanded a 30 percent pay increase, in part to compensate for an extended school day. And the negotiations addressed only salaries. With new accounting rules in place, the Chicago Public Schools’ annual contribution for teacher pensions will jump from $231 million to $684 million between 2013 and 2014, according to the Illinois Policy Institute. Next year, pension costs will eat up nearly half of the education funding that Chicago schools receive from the state.

Perhaps most egregious are teachers’ attempts to duck accountability to save union jobs. Under Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan, a public school teaching position would no longer be a sinecure; teachers would have to justify their employment with their students’ test scores. While this makes sense to the public—Barack Obama’s own secretary of education, Arne Duncan, has fought for similar accountability plans nationwide—unions see it as a threat to job security, which, to them, clearly takes precedence over student learning.

Even to those inclined to support unions, these issues are losers. People out of work and parents scrambling to find care for their kids are likely to lose sympathy with teachers quickly as the strike drags on. The fact that Emanuel, a Democrat, is the one getting tough with the CTU is a sign that the union’s demands are out of line even by mainstream liberal standards. (On Monday, Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan issued a statement saying that he “stands with Rahm Emanuel,” which made me check to see if my office was properly ventilated.)

The strike could also damage support for the teachers by drawing a clear contrast between heavily unionized public schools and union-free charter schools. Currently, Chicago has nearly 100 charter schools, and 52,000 of the students in those schools will be attending classes on schedule and outperforming public school students academically. A study by the Illinois Policy Institute examined the Chicago district’s open-enrollment, non-selective high schools and found that nine of the ten top performers were charters—all while the average Chicago-area charter-school teacher earns about $49,000 per year. Charter schools, of course, are also anathema to the CTU—but by walking out on the city’s schoolchildren, the unionized teachers are only reminding parents that another option exists, one that works better at lower cost.

It’s possible, of course, that the CTU could prevail in this dispute and win valuable concessions from Emanuel. But it’s also possible—if the mayor remains strong—that Chicago’s teachers have given Illinois the shove it needs to start moving toward the Wisconsin model.

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