Chicago teachers strike: It's about kids, not unions

The union representing Chicago's 26,000 teachers and support staff says its members are prepared to stay on strike as long as it takes to get an acceptable contract. That's put Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a tough position as he tries to push reforms both he and the Obama administration believe are crucial to improving education for Chicago's 350,000 public school students.

The city has already proposed boosting teachers' pay by 16 percent over the next four years, along with other concessions, despite a severe fiscal crunch. But money isn't the main issue in this dispute. The real question is whether Chicago is ready to embrace the kind of broad reforms Baltimore City and other school systems have adopted to make teachers and principals more accountable and boost student achievement. But Chicago's teachers aren't helping themselves or their students by fighting to preserve the status quo.

That's because no one can defend a system in which only a little more than half of Chicago public school students graduate from high school and fewer than 6 percent go on to earn college diplomas. Mayor Emanuel believes that's unacceptable, and he has made school reform a top priority of his administration. That's brought him into direct conflict with the teacher's union, a core Democratic constituency. That makes for uncomfortable politics in an election year in which Mr. Emanuel is a major Democratic fundraiser, but the mayor is right to stand his ground in insisting that Chicago's children deserve better.

At bottom, the confrontation is about two issues that are key to the reform effort: Tying teacher evaluations and compensation to gains in student test scores and giving principals more flexibility to hire the best teachers available to put in their classrooms. The union has couched its objections to the city's proposals in terms of job security and working conditions, but its real goal seems to be to simply make it harder to fire ineffective teachers who aren't helping children learn.

That's a pity because this fight doesn't have to turn into a war between the city and the union. Baltimore's experience shows that these kinds of contract issues can be resolved through dialogue in a way that benefits both teachers and their pupils. Two years ago Baltimore City and its teachers union agreed to a landmark contract that essentially adopted all the reform elements Chicago teachers are now resisting, and both the city and the union emerged stronger for having reached a deal. It simply required both sides to recognize that they both had a stake in improving the quality of education for city schoolchildren and that these kinds of reforms can be negotiated.

This fight doesn't have to be a pro- or an anti-union issue; the dispute in Chicago is no repeat of the union standoff in Wisconsin, which dealt with the very legitimacy of public collective bargaining. This, instead, is a dispute about education policy that is playing out across the nation. There was plenty of skepticism among Baltimore teachers when the city school board initially offered a package of reforms similar to what Chicago is proposing, and there undoubtedly are still many union members who would rather have kept the old system of rewarding teachers for years of service rather than performance in the classroom. But the whole country is moving away from that model, and there's no turning back the clock. In the future, teachers unions are going to have to be more flexible about work rules and policies that help students learn better.

Mr. Emanuel clearly didn't want this fight, and he had every reason to try to avoid it. What he is asking is not unreasonable, nor is it unprecedented. It's simply the right thing to do for his city's school children, and he needs to see it through to the end.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad