On the CTU Strike

Okay, unless I missed something, Rahm is CTU’s bitch.

Chicago, which is mostly broke, is hiring more teachers in languages, music and special ed, paying them more salary, paying them for supplies (still very little), paying them for suspensions, agreeing to limit their class sizes, paying their health premiums same as always, maybe even paying them for paternity leave. In return, they got….very little. They can hire new teachers over laid off teachers. They can use test scores for teacher evaluations—up to 30%.

I was enthralled by the CTU strike. Totally fascinated that an extremely overweight, frowsy, no-bullshit, way the hell left of center black woman virtually coldcocked a younger, relatively good-looking hard ass Democrat mayor who’s best buds with the big O.

I’m also pleased with the results, because the media was entirely on Rahm’s side. Harold Myerson and, much later, Eugene Robinson were the only major columnists who came out for the teachers. The Nation supported unions, for the most part. Everyone else slammed the unions hard. There were the cautious skeptics, like Kevin Drum, but almost no one criticized Rahm for being anything but too soft, while there were plenty of CTU beatdowns like this Charles Lane rant, which was truly depressing, since I normally like Lane.

Any story that up and bitchslaps the opinion leaders is a joy to behold. The elites are largely of one mind on education reform, even those who aren’t actually in the reform business; whether neo-liberal or conservative, it’s up with accountability and choice, down with unions who protect “bad teachers”. They really don’t seem capable of grasping that after 10-15 years of non-stop rhetoric on the supposed failure of public schools, they’ve barely moved the needle on public opinion, which isn’t sure whether the rhetoric is true and just not relevant, or a flat-out lie, or some of both. So when the polls showed the Chicago residents supporting the unions (Hispanics and blacks supporting by a substantial majority; whites were at 48%, which is much higher than I would have anticipated given how few white kids attend CPS), it was a hoot to watch everyone struggle to accomodate reality. Hard to call parents stupid when your big current issue is parental triggers, but really, what options are there?

The education reform movement and its growing body of elite adherents live in an echo chamber. Their political success, like NCLB and teacher evaluations via test scores, has been gained by a combination of federal fiat and public indifference for a cause that doesn’t affect most voters and sure sounds noble. Their own surveys reveal that public support for reform causes is soft, but they all keep talking as if they’re riding a wave of political outrage with just those nasty unions—not the teachers, just the unions—opposing the will of the people.

A Gallup poll reveals once again that more people think NCLB made public education worse than made it better, and a large majority thinks it made no difference or made things worse. And that’s when they are asked about education at the national level; everyone knows what Americans think of their local schools. Like Obamacare, education reform isn’t gaining fans with time.

But if I’m right about public indifference/rejection, why are charter schools growing like weeds?

I offer this up as opinion/assertion, without a lot of evidence to back me: most parents know intuitively that bad teachers aren’t a huge problem. What they care about, from top to bottom of the income scale, is environment. Suburban white parents don’t want poor black and Hispanic kids around. Poor black and Hispanic parents don’t want bad kids around. (Yes, this means suburban parents see poor kids as mostly bad kids.) Asian parents don’t want white kids around, much less black or Hispanic. White parents don’t really want too many Asians around, either, but that’s the opposite of the “bad kids” problem.

Parents don’t care much about teacher quality. They care a lot about peer group quality.

They are right to worry. Before I became a teacher, I’d read other teachers talk about how just a few kids can really disrupt a classroom, moving management from a no-brainer to the primary focus of the day. Now I am one of those teachers. I’ve worked in several schools in which the overwhelming presence of low income students who didn’t care about their grades has utterly removed the “stigma of an F” from the entire population, causing panic in the upper middle income white parents who can’t quite afford private school yet live in a district that worries about lawsuits if they track by ability. Their kids, particularly the boy kids, start to adopt this opinion, and white failure rates start rising.

So charters become a way for parents to sculpt their school environments. White parents stuck in majority/minority districts start progressive charters that brag about their minority population but are really a way to keep the brown kids limited to the well-behaved ones. Low income black and Hispanic parents want safe schools. Many of them apply for charter school lotteries because they know charters can kick out the “bad kids” without fear of lawsuits. But they still blame the “bad kids”, not the teachers, which is why they might send their kids to charter schools while still ejecting Adrian Fenty for Michelle Rhee’s sins.

As I’ve mentioned before, education reformers are now pushing suburban charters with strong academic focus, which are nothing more than tracking for parents who can’t get their public schools to do it for them.

I really can’t stress this point enough: charters have succeeded because of their ability to control students, not teachers. Comprehensive schools are bound by legal requirements and the constant threat of disparate impact lawsuits. It’s really that simple.

Charter schools don’t scale. What we should be doing, ideally, is “flipping” the populations. Charter schools can focus on one of three populations: low incentives, special ed, or non-native English speakers. Let the large comprehensives focus on the general population.

If comprehensive schools didn’t fear disparate impact lawsuits for expelling problem students and tracking; if free and appropriate education was dramatically limited in scope; if non-native English speakers were expected to learn English on their own, parents in “diverse” districts would become a whole lot less worried about their local schools and the charter movement would take a huge hit.

Wait, where was I? The CTU strike. But it’s related. The strike succeeded in large part because the reform Democrats were shocked to discover that the city population sided with the teachers. While I’m pleased at the outcome for the reasons outlined, costs are still a huge problem, particularly pensions. So what’s the answer?

Rick Hess compares the Chicago strike, brought about by Democrats, to the Wisconsin reforms (assuming they survive the courts). Democrats argue that reform can be achieved by working with unions; Governor Scott Walker just went after pension costs and won (again, so far).

I’m not sure I buy that distinction (although any article that calls Steven Brill a loser gets my vote). Rahm’s not a governor; he could only deal at the district level, and his ex-boss needs unions for his re-election bid. While he seemed to fold on everything, it may be that he had no options once the teachers walked out—again, because to reformers’ consternation, the parents and the public sided with the teachers. Walker had a legislature backing his play.

But I also wonder how much of the difference is due to the fact that Walker focused entirely on cost-cutting, without getting into accountability or merit. It’s one thing for the public to support teachers fighting for air-conditioning and against unfair evaluations, quite another to support their right to free guaranteed pensions on the taxpayers’ dime.

So here is my advice for Republicans:

  1. Focus on government worker pension pcosts. All government workers. No giving cops and firefighters a free ride. (The public supports this, too.)
  2. To the extent possible, scale back existing retirees’ benefits and pay, as opposed to focusing only on new and current workers.
  3. Instead of blaming teachers and unions, blame the frigging courts. They’re the huge obstacle to pension and union reform. Ask Arnold. Ask Scott Walker.
  4. Stop pushing charter schools and accountability. Start talking about the need to bring back tracking, and giving schools control over their environments. Talk about scaling back special education. Accept the Hispanic vote as a lost cause and start asking pointed questions about the cost of educating kids who can’t speak English.

As Rick Hess has noted elsewhere, parents see accountability as a problem for poor people, one they support rather like one supports Brussel sprouts—they taste like crap, but they’re supposed to be healthy. Neither political party is speaking to the hopes and fears of most parents.

So the CTU strike and its outcome, ideally, should resonate as a lasting symbol of the failure of education reform to win public opinion. This could be an opportunity for anyone willing to withstand disapproval by the elite machine that dictates acceptable opinions. That should be the job of Republicans in this environment. I’m afraid they’re not up to the task.

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26 responses to “On the CTU Strike

  • soren

    “Asian parents don’t want white kids around”

    Eh, more like a Chinese and to a lesser extent Korean thing.

    “Stop pushing charter schools and accountability.”

    “giving schools control over their environments. ”

    You can not give public schools control over their environments because the public is too pussy to deal with the consequences. Charter and private schooling is the only politically feasible solution.

  • Hattie

    “…an extremely overweight, frowsy, no-bullshit, way the hell left of center black woman…”

    Speaking as a foreigner, what amazed me was that she honestly thinks she’s black. Everyone in my neck of the woods who saw her guessed something like Greek or Armenian. Even the newspapers that mentioned her had to point it out, in a “yeah, it’s not really relevent, but she’d sit on you if you got it wrong – and you would get it wrong if we don’t tell you” kind of way.

    It’s truly fascinating. I still laugh every time Eric Holder says he’s black. He’s clearly a mix of white and Arab. I have an Arab friend who proudly tells people that one of her own is the AG in the US, so there.

  • ME

    The reason 48% of whites (who send their children to school elsewhere) supported the teachers was because they need the “bad” kids babysat most of the day. From early morning (free breakfast) to early evening (after school care) the “bad” kids are cajoled into wreaking havoc and violence only on each other, in one building, away from productive citizens – kind of like preschool for juvenile detention centers or daycare until they are eligible for actual prison.

    The strike meant the libraries, parks, etc. were unusable for any non-gang members because the CPS kids were flooding them. Sit and sip a coffee as a Chicago public school lets out one weekday – for example a much lauded charter school in Bucktwon (a nice area so of course some fun and excitement had to be imported). Watch the entire surrounding area batten down the hatches before the kids are pardoned for the evening. It looks just like an old western where the Moms rush children inside, windows close, people pull their cars into the garage, wagons, strollers, and bikes get locked to porch rails…and then all hell breaks loose for about a half hour while the parents blast crude music and scream profanity at each other, clog the small residential streets with maniacal driving, and the kids stream out damaging parkway gardens, throwing junk food wrappers all over the place and “play” fighting. Anything not secured is stolen, anything that can be quickly and needlessly vandalized is just for giggles.

    That is why Rham lost his power play. No one really thinks their tax dollars are spent on education – the bar has been lowered so low that taxpayers are THRILLED when someone just keeps the chaos controlled long enough to enjoy a tiny sliver of a decent life in Chicago. The raccoon eyed moron tasked with stealing everything Jr. left is either frighteningly out of touch with the city (almost definitely) or so dangerously stupid it is high comedy (also likely). The crazy fat far left of center lady who kicked his ass without breaking a sweat is not dangerously out of touch or (as) stupid.

    • educationrealist

      Conservatives often talk about how schools are too lenient, that education should be a privilege that can be taken away. If bad kids were expelled, schools could focus on the kids who want to be there.

      I tell them great. Have they consulted the cops on this plan? Because the cops know better than anyone that much of school in certain areas is little more than babysitting potential delinquents. Are they prepared for the increased costs of jail?

      You’ve given me an idea for another post. Thanks!

      However, I had never really considered the logistics of what the chaos looked like until your post. That’s really sad.

      • Hattie

        But the underlying principle – that there are people in classes who just ruin things for everything else – is sound. (I think. I dunno, you’re the teacher.)

        What would it take to get these people (I hesitate to use the term “children”, “teenagers” or “students”) warehoused? What kind of political hoops would they have to jump through, especially considering the probable demographic issues?

      • The Wobbly Guy

        They can’t behave themselves outside of school? Back to old school traditional methods.

        Whip them. Hard. Of course, this comes with a high political cost in today’s ‘education is love’/’you can’t harm the children’ liberal ideology.

  • Bostonian

    Congrats ER, the teachers’ unions won. Now Chicago and Illinois are even more bankrupt than before. The day after the strike was settled the NYT ran a story, “Next School Crisis for Chicago: Pension Fund Is Running Dry”. Unionized government monopoly schools are far too expensive, and financial judgement day is approaching.

  • AllanInPortland

    “his ex-boss needs unions for his re-election bid”

    Interesting piece, I much enjoyed it, but I think you’re dealing with two distinct issues. The one I quoted, which pre-ordained the outcome since in negotiations those who care the least always win and no one cares more about the Presidency than aspiring Dem’s, and everything else.

    I’d not try to draw too many lessons from the Chicago Teacher’s strike, though the one about whites willing to pay good money to keep juvenile thugs centralized 8hrs a day, seems a good one.

  • Roger Sweeny

    Very interesting piece. ME in the comments says that lots of Chicagoans wanted the strike to end so that “bad” kids would be kept off the street during the school day. I think a lot of Chicagoans also wanted the strike to end so that their own kids would have a place to go during the day. School is educational day care. The relative importance of the two parts varies with different people and different places. But both parts are pretty much always there.

    (Thought experiment: imagine an education platform that does what the visionaries say it should do. It delivers personalilzed instruction, with appropriate feedback, to students sitting at a computer at home. Students using it do as well as students at a “brick and mortar” school. I suspect most parents would still prefer to have their kids go to that brick and mortar school. Many would strongly prefer it.)

    • ME


      I agree that many parents prefer to “send” their children to school (for various reasons). However, no parent prefers to send their children to a CPS unless they are criminally blind to reality or embrace the lowest investment parenting philosophy possible. You cannot fathom the sheer madness of a Chicago public school until you experience one. They are quite literally low level prisons. The buildings are old, filthy, staffed with security guards, and equipped with metal detectors. (Those are the “okay” schools in good areas, I am certain I have been no where near a “bad” school.)

      My point was that most Chicagoans wouldn’t give a rats whisker about the strike if there was some other place to house the underage underclass population all day. Most Chicagoans pay a small ransom to NOT send their children to a CPS school.

      My point was that the reason the majority of Chicago residents supported the teachers strike had nothing to do with sending their own children to school (private schools held regular classes and did not strike). Most supported the strike because the possibility of physical violence against their person and possibility of property damage was increased when school was not in session. Check crime stats in Chicago after CPS lets out for summer and then when CPS resumes. I used to manage commercial properties before I had children and many of them budgeted for and hired security staff in the summer months. The popular wisdom is that the warm weather is a factor in the elevated violence and crime. I argue that if school was let out for winter vacation instead of summer, the spike in crime would be in November, December, and January.

      The true nature of what public school is seems to have escaped Rham. His inability to understand even the most basic workings of the city he is mayor of just boggles the mind and ensured that he didn’t have a snowballs chance in hell against the teachers union. For some reason none of his advisers thought it relevant to explain to him the actual purpose of public school (in Chicago). BTW – His children attend a very expensive, very exclusive (even if you COULD afford the tuition doesn’t mean your kids could attend), very private, highly rated private school in Hyde Park. His kids have never even smelled the parking lot of a public school.

  • Hattie

    What’s your take on this “revolution” at a high school, which has apparently made it a “model for educational reform”?


    • Roger Sweeny

      It sounds useful. It may have revolutionary effects. But at the present time, there is simply no way of knowing.

      Asking a teacher whether some big change will work is like asking a chemist whether some compound will make a useful drug. The chemist may be able to tell you something, say, “Dihydrogen oxide would be an effective therapy for dehydration but probably not for anything else.” However, to really know, the chemical would have to be tested on actual living creatures who have the malady that the chemical is supposed to improve.

      This “revolution” would have to be tried in numerous ordinary schools before we can say how much of a model it really can be. Ordinary schools with ordinary teachers and an ordinary principal and ordinary funding.

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