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Can the Chicago Teachers’ Strike Fix Democratic Education Reform?

In 1960, when Albert Shanker and other members of New York City’s teachers union sought collective bargaining rights, they set a strike date for Monday November 7, the day prior to the presidential election between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The timing would provide maximum leverage, they reasoned, because the Democratic mayor, Robert Wagner, would not want to come down hard on striking teachers the day before the election. This strategy was vindicated when teachers won an agreement that led to bargaining rights after just a single day on strike.

The same logic surely crossed the mind of the shrewd president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Karen Lewis, who knew that calling a strike this week would be highly disruptive to President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. At a time when Obama is trying to rally his base, the strike reminded teachers across the country of his support for merit pay and nonunion charter schools—policies also backed by Obama’s former chief of staff and the current mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel. And at a time when Obama is struggling in the campaign money chase, the strike negotiations have distracted Emanuel from helping the president raise dollars from wealthy donors. Both factors may help explain why the strike now appears close to settling

But if the strike has been bad for Democratic presidential politics, it may ultimately be good for Democratic education policy, which for too long has aped right-wing rhetoric in the name of education reform. It can’t hurt to force a leading Democrat like Emanuel to spend a little more time negotiating with actual teachers and a little less time wooing hedge fund managers, many of whom passionately back the education policies that rank-and-file teachers despise.

Applying business school principles to the education of young children, Emanuel and his wealthy supporters favor firing teachers based heavily on student test score results and deregulating education by expanding the number of charter schools. But while much of the press equates standing up to unions with education reform, key reforms that unions opposed have not worked out as planned. Although 88 percent of charters are nonunion, giving principals in those schools the flexibility that reformers prize, the most comprehensive study of charter schools (backed by pro-charter foundations), concluded that charters are about twice as likely to underperform regular public schools as to outperform them. During the strike, nonunion charter schools have bragged that they remained open, but the lack of teacher voice in these schools helps explain why charters nationally have extremely high rates of teacher turnover.

The theory that a nonunion environment, which allows for policies like merit pay, would make all the difference in promoting educational achievement never held much water. After all, teachers unions are weak-to-nonexistent throughout much of the American South, yet the region hardly distinguishes itself educationally. Indeed, the highest performing states, such as Massachusetts and New Jersey—and the highest performing nations, such as Finland—have heavily unionized teaching forces.

To some teachers union skeptics, like the New York Times editorial page, the very fact that Chicago teachers decided to go on strike was itself evidence that they did not care sufficiently about children. “Teachers’ strikes, because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea,” the Times opined. But this attitude displays a stunning ignorance of the way collective bargaining works: If teachers unilaterally disarmed, saying they would never go on strike, they would lose all leverage and go back to collective begging rather than collective bargaining.

Of course, teacher strikes should be a last resort—extended strikes do harm the children’s learning—but sometimes teachers must assert themselves, particularly as they fight for greater resources and reduced class size for themselves and students. Moreover, a brief strike can have its own educational value for children. As labor attorney Moshe Marvit told me, “In Chicago, 350,000 public school students are experiencing, first-hand, how workers can band together and demand a voice in the workplace.” Noting the many children present on picket lines, Marvit suggests, “These teachers are teaching their students, through action, the power of collective action and solidarity.” And according to Reuters, a poll earlier this week found that 66 percent of parents with children in the Chicago Public Schools supported the strike.

Other opponents of teachers have made much of the fact that the average salary of Chicago teachers is about $76,000. (The median salary is $68.000.) On Wednesday, I appeared on CNBC’s “The Kudlow Report,” and Lawrence Kudlow cited the figure, suggesting it was too high for these college-educated professionals—never mind that the wealthy investors who appear regularly on his show often make ten times, even one hundred times those salaries. I don’t begrudge Chicago teachers their $76,000 and decent health care and pensions. They do extremely important work, under very difficult circumstances. Why do those who believe deeply in markets suggest that attracting and retaining excellent teachers can be done on the cheap?

Indeed, why did Emanuel think it was fair to unilaterally rescind an agreed-upon teacher salary raise earlier this year and suggest that the school day be lengthened by 20 percent (a worthy reform) but teachers be paid only 2 percent more for the additional work? Moves like this helped unify teachers, so that when Emanuel tried to weaken the union by getting state legislation requiring that 75 percent of members must approve strikes, teachers responded by voting to authorize one by a 90 percent margin.

Kudlow and other union critics are enraged that the Chicago teachers balked at having their livelihoods placed at the mercy of student test score results. But does it really make sense for a teacher to be held entirely responsible for the performance of a student who is evicted and becomes homeless in the middle of the school year or a student devastated when her brother is shot dead in the street? As U.C. Berkeley’s Jesse Rothstein has found, test score results for a given teacher can swing from year to year, so the heavy reliance on value-added testing, backed by Emanuel, is not warranted.

Of course teachers should be held accountable for performance, but there is a better alternative: peer assistance and review. In Toledo, Ohio, Montgomery County, Maryland, and numerous other districts, expert teachers go into a school and seek to help struggling teachers—and, after a period of time, recommend that those teachers who do not improve be fired. In such districts, more teachers are terminated than when principals are solely responsible, because upstream teachers suffer when colleagues pass along unprepared students. Importantly, unlike mechanical plans that fire teachers heavily based on test score performance, peer review—which is advocated by many union activists—actually enhances the profession, making it more like medicine or the law.

The Chicago teachers strike is important nationally because it has the potential to change the education reform conversation. Attacking teachers and their unions as obstacles to reform has been a staple of right-wing rhetoric for years, and for Republicans it always had a powerful electoral logic, given that teachers unions heavily support Democratic politicians who favor greater investment in education. But in recent years, as Democrats like Rahm Emanuel began  mimicking conservative talking points, teachers grew increasingly frustrated and demoralized.

Whatever the particulars of the final resolution to the strike, the dustup will be successful if it shakes up the wrongheaded, yet increasingly bipartisan, sense that teachers and their unions are what ail American education. Students in Chicago and other big cities face significant challenges, including poverty and segregation and, yes, some incompetent educators. But Democrats need to get about the business of real education reform that addresses all of these questions—without demeaning the vast majority of teachers.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy, and coauthor, with Moshe Marvit, of Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy By Enhancing Worker Voice.