Chicago’s Teaching Moment
Can Mayor Rahm hold out against the union? Calling Mr. Obama.
Has Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel met Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker? If he hasn’t, we’d be glad to mediate a call. Chicago teachers went on strike Monday for the first time in 25 years, and Mr. Emanuel can help the cause of education reform nationwide if he shows some Walker-like gumption.
On Sunday night, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis promised that her 25,000 members would walk the picket line until they have a “fair contract,” and she called the battle an “education justice fight.” Nice to know they’re thinking of the kids at the start of the school year.
Senior editorial writer Collin Levy on the Chicago on the Chicago teachers’ strike. Photo Credit: Associate Press.
Middle-class parents and two-earner households scrambling for child care may not sympathize. According to the union’s own figures, the average Chicago public school teacher makes $71,000 a year in salary, and that’s before pensions and benefits generally worth $15,000 or more a year. Senior teachers make much more. That’s not a bad deal compared to the median household income of $47,000 for a Chicago worker in the private economy.
Ditto working conditions. Union leaders have bellyached mightily about Mr. Emanuel’s decision last year to extend the Chicago school day to seven hours from five hours and 45 minutes (the shortest among the country’s 10 biggest cities). The longer hours are one reason the union says teachers need a 29% pay raise over two years. The average Chicago teacher works 1,039 instructional hours per year—roughly half the time logged by the average 40-hour-a-week working Joe.
When Mr. Emanuel came to office last year, the Chicago Public Schools were already facing a $700 million deficit. Over the next three fiscal years amid mounting salaries and pensions, the Chicago system will be $3 billion in the red. Mr. Emanuel’s negotiators still offered a 16% pay raise over four years, but the union walked away.
There’s a case for no raise considering that Chicago’s schools are among the worst in the country, with a graduation rate around 55%. A 2006 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that for every 100 Chicago public high school freshmen, only six get four-year college degrees. Among African-American and Hispanic boys, the number is three of 100.
Another issue is accountability, with Mr. Emanuel seeking a new teacher evaluation program that includes student test scores as a significant factor. The union wants student scores to play a minor role. The union also wants laid-off teachers to be hired back first if school principals have new job openings. Chicago may close up to 100 failing schools in coming years, and if principals have to dip into that layoff pool to hire even lousy teachers, students will suffer.
Under state law, teachers can strike over wages but not over policies set by the Chicago Board of Education. So the strike is also illegal.
The Chicago brawl is notable because it shows the rift between teachers unions and some Democrats. Unions have long had Democrats in their hip pocket, but more office holders are figuring out that this threatens taxpayers and is immoral to boot.
Perhaps Mr. Emanuel should ask his former boss, President Obama, for a good public word. Recall how eager Mr. Obama was to speak against Mr. Walker’s collective-bargaining reforms, at least until the Republican looked like he’d win his recall election.
The Chicago stakes are nearly as high. The chance for major school reform comes rarely, and if Mr. Emanuel gets rolled in his first big union showdown, he’ll hurt 350,000 Chicago students and the reputation he’s hoping to build as a reformer.
A version of this article appeared September 11, 2012, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Chicago’s Teaching Moment.