The outrageous Chicago Public Schools teachers’ strike that held the third-largest school system in the U.S. hostage to unscientific pandemic-mitigation demands should remind us of the disproportionate power that labor unions hold in the Democratic Party. The teachers are returning to work today, but one wishes that President Biden or Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago had threatened to fire them for their illegal action, as Ronald Reagan did with the air traffic controllers in 1981 or, further back, then-Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge did when he backed Boston’s decision to fire its striking police officers in 1919.
While we wish in vain for such leadership, there’s another approach cities should consider: rolling back the power of big-city teachers’ unions by breaking up school districts. It’s common sense that, like any large labor union, big-city teachers’ unions have outsize leverage because they control hundreds of schools. Smaller, independent, competing districts would change this picture. Would Mike Mulgrew, president of New York City’s teachers’ union, be so glib about threatening to shut down Manhattan schools if he knew that Queens or Brooklyn teachers might not go along?
There’s good evidence that big-city districts have been more likely to shut down during the pandemic—at the demonstrated risk of learning loss for students who most need a good education. At the height of the pandemic in 2020–2021, the Center for Reinventing Education found that four in five big-city school districts chose remote learning, compared with one in four in the nation as a whole. San Francisco parents clamored to reopen the schools, but the unions refused, even as the local school board focused, instead, on renaming schools named for George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson (and even Dianne Feinstein) because of their perceived acts of historical oppression.
Federal data since 1993 (but before the pandemic) also show the power of big-city teachers’ unions. Of the 66 school-system strikes during that period, 36 have occurred either through statewide action or in one of the 100 largest school districts, including Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Oakland. Strikes have also occurred in an additional four districts that, though not in the top 100, are the largest in their metropolitan area (Buffalo, Dayton, Providence, and Youngstown). The district’s size can also lead to market power as exercised by other arms of organized labor, such as the strike by school-bus drivers here in New York. During the same time period, there were no teacher strikes in the small, high-performing school districts of Westchester County, where teacher replacement is more feasible and parents wouldn’t stand for closures.
We know why politicians tolerate these strikes, just as we understand why Chicago teachers feel emboldened to shut down their schools. Members of teachers’ unions regularly constitute roughly 10 percent of delegates to Democratic Party conventions, and they contribute more than $50 million annually in political donations.
Breaking up big-city school districts would make for a dramatic change. If each of New York’s five boroughs had its own independent system, we could rebalance the relative power of the public and teachers’ unions while preserving employees’ protections and collective-bargaining rights. Doing so could also improve school quality by introducing more competition among districts currently subsumed into one large jurisdiction. Research from Boston has shown that competition improves student achievement. One can think of such a change in antitrust terms: larger school jurisdictions have greater market power, making it possible for an interest group (organized labor) to exercise disproportionate influence over public services.
Yes, there would thorny details, like how to apportion existing bond debt and teacher-pension obligations. But those presumably could be worked out. The pandemic has lifted the veil on the extraordinary self-interest and power of teachers’ unions. Breaking up districts would not be easy—but the payoff could be big.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images