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When a leading conservative pundit compliments a labor union leader for getting something right, it's usually worth noticing.

That's exactly what happened recently when The Washington Post's conservative op-ed columnist George Will praised Karen Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, and its members for being "not all wrong" to pick a fight with Chicago mayor Rham Emanuel.

Will pointed out that Emanuel is forcing tough new "accountability" policies, including "merit pay," on teachers and schools at time when the city is "experiencing an epidemic of youth violence," "social regression," and "family disintegration."

His perfectly reasonable conclusion is that the mayor is ratcheting up the demands on teaching at a time when teaching is being "subordinated to the arduous task of maintaining minimal order." And because the purpose of unions is to "enhance members’ well-being," then Lewis and her followers -- who voted overwhelmingly (90 percent) in favor to authorize a strike -- are rational actors in this conflict and have just cause to dispute the mayor's strong-arm contract.

But regardless of Will's brief spate of rationality, he offsets it out with an irrational treatise that the standoff between the mayor and the teachers union is a conflict between Emanuel's "admirable ideas" and the teachers' desires for "a pay raise."

In fact, just this week, when a "fact-finder" hired to help arbitrate the dispute recommended a double-digit raise for teachers, the union voted it down because of "classroom quality issues."

Although the school board rejected the recommendation too -- for "financial" reasons -- Lewis, speaking for the teachers, said "smaller class sizes" and "a rich curriculum that includes art music foreign language and physical education" were what mattered most.

For Will to be confused about the positions held by teachers and their unions is, unfortunately, not at all unusual. People on the opposite end of the spectrum also think that the positions that teachers and their unions take are primarily a "labor issue."

But this sells the value of teachers far too short. And it diminishes the significance of the message that teachers in Chicago are sending us about the dire circumstances in the communities they serve.

How dire?

Chicago Youth In Trauma

Chicago is currently experiencing a 35 percent increase in homicide rate. "More young people are killed in Chicago than any other American city," investigative journalists at The Chicago Reporter recently observed.

Last year, a journalist at that news site, Megan Cottrell, found that among the 10 largest cities in America, Chicago has the third highest poverty rate, -- with 21.6 percent of residents living under the poverty level -- and leads the nation in poverty rate among African Americans, with 32.2 percent of all black families living in poverty.

Also last year, the Huffington Post reported about a study that found "1 In 5 Chicagoans aren't sure where they'll find their next meal." And in January of this year, the Chicago Sun Times reported that more than 10,660 students were homeless at the beginning of the school year -- 1,466 more than the previous school year, which ended with a record number of students with nowhere to call home.

Emanuel's response to the worsening situation in Chicago has been to demand sacrifices from public service workers, including teachers, and use an argument about "wages" to distract from far more critical concerns that have more potential to rescue the city's children and youth -- including issues that Chicago teachers want to bring to the table, namely, class size and school turn-arounds.

This Is Not About Wages

What's being forced on the Chicago teachers -- and by connection, the city in its entirety -- is described by another Chicago local reporter at as a power play by powerful establishment politicians to limit the debate.

Yana Kunichoff reports that teachers are being prevented from making negotiations include issues parents care about -- such as class size and well-rounded curriculum -- because of bills muscled through the state legislature that "narrowed the range of issues that can be discussed during collective bargaining."

Kunichoff quotes an expert on education labor from the University of Chicago to explain how teachers are forced to confine negotiations to "salaries" rather than issues that the teachers and their "allies have argued are essential to the development of students."

One of those issues, class size, became especially important to teachers when they conducted an analysis and found that classrooms for younger students in Chicago "were larger than 95 percent of those in districts in the rest of Illinois" and that class sizes in kindergarten averaged more than 24 students. An analysis of class size in K-3 grades conducted by The Center for Public Education concluded that "a class size of no more than 18 students per teacher is required to produce the greatest benefits."

Another important issue for the Chicago teachers are "school turn-arounds," where struggling schools are ordered to replace the principal and half of the teaching staff or are closed down altogether -- often to return as a privately controlled charter school with a completely different teaching staff.

Turn-arounds have become particularly prevalent in Chicago, despite strong opposition from teachers, parents, and public school advocates.

Those opposed to these disruptive turn-around models have good reasons to protest. A recent study conducted by the Center for Longitudinal Data in Education Research looked at the impact of high teacher turnover -- an inevitable outcome of the turn-around models -- and concluded that treating teachers like replaceable widgets lowers the morale in schools to the point of harming academic achievement.

A review of the study by Education Week's indispensable Stephen Sawchuck highlights the key findings of the research, including
• Students taught by teachers in the same grade-level team in the same school did worse in years where turnover rates were higher.
• An increase in teacher turnover by 1 standard deviation corresponded with a decrease in math achievement of 2 percent.
• Students in grade levels with 100 percent turnover were especially affected, with lower test scores by anywhere from 6 percent to 10 percent.
• The effects were seen in both large and small schools, new and old ones.
• The negative effect of turnover on student achievement was larger in schools with more low-achieving and black students.

So with one side -- teachers -- being prevented from bringing important issues to the table that quite probably have the most impact on the wellbeing of students, how can this even be called a fair negotiation?

Where Parents Stand

Parents, of course, should be an important constituency in the dialogue.

According to a recent survey of Chicago-area parents conducted by the teachers union, a hefty majority of Chicagoans support the city's public school teachers and are highly skeptical of the mayor's handpicked Board of Education.

Many parent groups in Chicago have voiced strong supportfor the teachers.

A coalition of Chicago Public School parents representing 16 parent and community organizations" has declared its opposition to mayor Emanuel's positions.

And at least one parent group has declared that "Chicago is on the forefront of corporate education-busting because of the true grass roots collaboration between the Chicago Teachers’ Union and Chicago’s old and new parent and community groups." (emphasis, original)

The Bigger Picture

What's important to make note of is that the situation occurring in Chicago is not unlike what communities across the country are experiencing.

Nationwide, the U.S. poverty rate is now on track to rise to its highest rate since 1960s. The percentage of adults unsure of their financial standing because they are engaged in temporary employment is also reaching new heights. And census data show children are increasingly likely to live in high-poverty, low-opportunity communities.

The way our leaders are responding to these emergencies is to increasingly put the pressure on public employees, particularly teachers, to take on more sacrifice and adhere to austere budgets rather than demand taxpayers, especially the wealthy, to pay more.

If you're a parent, you know what it's like to have to dig deep, financially, when you're confronted with a health emergency for your kid or you're having to provide a foundational experience -- like education -- for your child because you know, in the long run, it's going to be beneficial to his or her long term wellbeing.

Why doesn't political leadership in Chicago get that? Why don't they dig deeper to finance quality improvements like smaller class size and well-rounded curriculum and end destructive policies like school turn-arounds?

Truth be told, Chicago teachers are playing the role of canaries in the coalmine of one of America's most traumatized communities. When canaries were brought down into coalmines to detect dangerous gas build-ups, miners knew that as long as the birds kept singing, they knew they were safe.

Right now, Chicago teachers are singing loud and clear. Is America listening?

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Crossposted from Campaign for America's Future,

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Comment Preferences

  •  Something to remember here (8+ / 0-)

    This is being done in Illinois - a solidly blue state, in a city with a Democrat for a Mayor. Rahm started this by canceling a 4% raise contractually agreed upon, then pushing for a longer school day without any compensation for it. When confronted by CTU president Karen Lewis, the mayor in his classy way apparently told Lewis "Fuck You." Way to support your base Mr. Democratic Mayor.

    But the attack on teachers by Democrats in Illinois doesn't stop there. The Democratic Governor - elected by the slimmest of margins thanks to support of the state's teachers' unions - has taken it as "his calling" to break the promise of the Illinois constitution and diminish already modest teacher pensions. His latest proposal attempts to make legal these changes by giving teachers a choice! Choose between your retirement health insurance - that teachers pay into every paycheck - or choose to forgo your cost of living adjustment in retirement. No diminishment of benefits there.

    But he's not alone - Quinn has the help of Mike Madigan - Democratic speaker of the House. The same guy who's been in charge in Springfield for 30+ years over which time the ILGA skipped pension payments and took pension holidays that have caused the issue in the first place. Should Illinois - one of the few states with a fixed income tax - look into increasing revenue? No plan other than benefit cuts have come from the speaker's Democratic office. Progressive income tax? Ending corporate giveaways? Reforming TIFF districts? Na. Reduce benefit is the only answer.

    Even "progressive" democrats like Daniel Biss - who's running for state senate now - are happy to throw teachers under the bus. When pressed on several teacher pension bills, he acknowledged that they were poor solutions, but that he'd vote for them as "something" had to be done. How about signing on as a co-sponsor for the graduated income tax bill? How about stop giving corporate giveaways to companies making billions in profit? Na. Let's cut benefits to those who generate $4.4 Billion in economic stimulus to Illinois' economy (PDF). That will do wonders for Illinois' economy, not to mention the teaching profession.

    Democrats have better be careful. There are nearly half a million active and retired teachers and their families in Illinois. Quinn won election by approximately 33K votes. If they don't start defending the middle class again, and continue to go after hard working public sector employees likes teachers just like Republicans, they're going to alienate their base to the point that Republicans will win where they should not.

    Like Democratic Illinois.

    Imagination is more important than knowledge. Albert Einstein

    by michael in chicago on Mon Jul 23, 2012 at 03:14:44 PM PDT

    •  Thanks Michael! (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Funkygal, michael in chicago, slatsg

      Great comment. That Democrats keep selling out teachers and other public employees is deplorable.

      •  It's not just teachers (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        David Kaib

        It's the economy of every state as a whole. What Illinois is doing is killing its economy. The more a state cuts services to keep taxes low, the more it kills its own economy. Last year Illinois passed tax cuts to the CME group - a corporation making nearly a billion dollars in profit. This created zero jobs and created a huge hole in the budget. To plug this hole, Illinois cut services in the equivalent of nearly 2,650 public sector jobs! They gave tax cuts to Sears to keep jobs, yet Sears just turned around and closed Illinois facilities laying people off.

        Our legislators in Illinois, especially Democrats "progressive democrats" like Daniel Biss, should be ashamed of themselves. They are killing our economy in grand Republican fashion, decrying the benefits promised to people who dedicate three decades or more of services to Illinois children.

        Imagination is more important than knowledge. Albert Einstein

        by michael in chicago on Tue Jul 24, 2012 at 07:30:09 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Excellent comment (n/t) (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity. Notes on a Theory

      by David Kaib on Mon Jul 23, 2012 at 07:06:43 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  On the same lines, but on the national level : (0+ / 0-)

      "The word bipartisan means some larger-than-usual deception is being carried out”. - George Carlin

      by Funkygal on Tue Jul 24, 2012 at 01:03:11 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  It really breaks my heart to see that Democrats (8+ / 0-)

    are so very wrong on the issue of education.  

  •  it may be wrong (0+ / 0-)

    the governor and the mayor's plan may be wrong, harm both children and teachers, and help republican politicians, but at least it's also very expensive.

    for this chaos, my school taxes went up this year.

  •  I think the students are the canaries, as (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    they are actually dying, living in poverty, wondering where their next meal is coming from, and trying to understand how a boring curriculum taught by rookies has anything to offer them.

    Meanwhile, the solution to all this is to cut pay, increase class size, and ignore the teacher's suggestions. Mmmmkay, I am sure everything will work out just fine.

    There is only one planet suitable for human habitation in our solar system.

    by too many people on Mon Jul 23, 2012 at 06:04:08 PM PDT

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