Jacob Cedarbaum’s first month as a Chicago public school science teacher was certainly unusual. He headed straight into the first Chicago teachers’ strike in over 25 years, which highlighted opposition to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s push to scale back anticipated pay raises, extend the school day, and tie standardized test scores more closely to teacher evaluations. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike demonstrates the harsh reality that unions and reformers are speaking past each other. After several years of tenuous cooperation, teachers unions feel compelled to take a stand before ceding too much ground. Education reformers meanwhile are emboldened to reach further, given their recent successes, but are hampered by budget woes. The strike signals further discord to come, as unions and reformers battle for control of education policy.
As Professor Martin West of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, an expert on the politics behind K-12 education policy told the HPR, “Arguably, the most important development in the politics of education in the past decade has been the rise of a significant reform wing in the Democratic Party.” A new generation of prominent Democratic politicians from Newark Mayor Cory Booker to President Obama have embraced components of education reform that include charter schools, extending the school day, and tying teacher evaluations more closely to standardized tests. This has led to tense negotiations between unions and Democratic administrations, famously embodied by those in Washington, D.C. between the teachers union and Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
However, the teachers unions have accepted some reforms. Dr. Matthew Chingos, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, told the HPR, “This shift has a lot to do with President Obama’s support for education reforms.” Now, both major political parties support aspects of reform and, as Chingos observed, “this consensus has forced the unions to grudgingly come along.”
Unions have negotiated in order to preserve their place at the table, working with reformers in Delaware and Tennessee to institute reforms that helped those two states receive federal grants from the Race to the Top program. Both states passed measures tying teacher pay and promotions in part to student performance, while expanding charter schools and outlining plans to address failing schools.
The manner in which the President has worked with unions has fostered the tenuous collaboration. West noted that Obama, when speaking to the National Education Association, said in reference to education reform, “We want to do this with you, not to you.” This attitude stands in stark contrast with the posture adopted by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who advocated limiting collective bargaining rights for public sector employees, including teachers. His attempt to limit union rights caused uproar and led to weeks of protests. Democratic reform policies had thus far avoided this kind of rancor, until Chicago.
Still Far Apart: A New Confrontation
The new reform era received a jolt in September when Chicago teachers decided to strike when multiple concerns over the proposed contract drew them into confrontation with Emanuel. One dispute centered on the mayor’s plan to extend the school day without increasing compensation. While Cedarbaum was quite supportive of more class time, he told the HPR, “I think it’s a little silly to expect anyone to work 20 percent more and not give them any sort of pay raise.”
Another concern focused on changes to teacher evaluations that heavily weighted standardized test scores; students’ scores would have accounted for over half of teacher evaluations under the original agreement proposed by Chicago. Cedarbaum dismissed this method as one that would not account for all the variables that influence test results. He argued that teachers are confronting many barriers to strong test scores, particularly in schools where students come from low-income neighborhoods.
Chingos meanwhile strongly criticized the strike itself: “We should not accept teachers striking. If kids are not in school, they’re not learning.” Chingos highlighted the detrimental impact time off from school has on children, particularly poor students, who often lose ground during the summer. Furthermore, he described the strike as a push for “more job protections.”
For Chingos, the debate over the percentage weight of test scores was simply another “bureaucratic solution to the problem.” He would rather shake up the bureaucracy and allow for greater choice among public schools, because ‘choice’ simply involves not tying where a student lives to where they attend school. He says, “Rich families have always had a lot of choice. They can move to places with the best schools or send their kids to private schools. Poor people don’t have any of these choices.” Schools would no longer have a guaranteed customer base and would theoretically be encouraged to improve in order to remain open.
These debates however have dominated teacher bargaining negotiations over the last decade, even when cooperation occurred. Several unique factors escalated the Chicago debate into one that dominated the national news throughout early September. Besides Mayor Emanuel’s celebrity, budget realities and a sense of “enough is enough” from teachers unions catalyzed the strike.
West discussed the effects of Chicago’s tight financial situation on the administration’s ability to negotiate, saying, “The Mayor is very committed to a reform agenda that contains elements of education reform normally opposed by teachers unions and teachers, but he is not able to come up with compensation to get reforms through.” This situation contrasts sharply with the way Michelle Rhee pushed for education reform against union opposition in Washington, D.C. Rhee was able to make reform more palatable with increased salaries and bonuses, as well as buyout packages for teachers nearing retirement in failing or under-enrolled schools scheduled to close.
Teachers saw the contract dispute in Chicago as an opportunity to push back following years of quantitatively driven reforms, flexing their political muscle. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed following the strike’s resolution, CTU President Karen Lewis and the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten stated that the strike “changed the conversation about education reform.” With the new agreement, teachers reduced the weight of standardized testing in evaluations, emphasized reforming and not closing failing schools, and boosted their political clout.
The Road Ahead
With both teachers and education reformers presenting divergent ideas on education policy, there is worry about future feuds. The strike’s demonstration that drastic action can enhance teachers unions’ bargaining position has only increased concerns especially now when cash-strapped school districts cannot negotiate effectively. Some lawmakers have tried to curb the potential for these disputes by limiting collective bargaining rights for public workers, but many, including West, do not believe that this is, “politically feasible on a broad level.”
Ultimately, what will affect future relations between teachers unions and reformers is how they view one another’s motives. As Cedarbaum commented, “I think from the teachers’ standpoint, we’re just looking for some respect, and I guess honesty from the Chicago mayor’s office.” Teachers meanwhile cannot view education reformers as threats; reformers are equally concerned about public education. Should this antagonistic relationship exist though, as West summarized, we are “likely to see more of what happened in Chicago.”