Opinion: Columnists

Chicago teachers' strike was not about the kids

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Opinion,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Campaign 2012

A gold star to anyone can answer this question: Why did the Chicago Teachers Union go on strike in the first place?

Based on the rhetoric from the union leaders and their allies, it was for the children's sake.

"Our mission is very clear: We fight for equal, high-quality public education for all," Jesse Jackson told a cheering crowd of teachers over the weekend.

But a closer look shows the opposite: The real issues at stake were teacher evaluations and job security. The union fought tooth and nail to prevent its members from ever being held accountable for their performance or from losing their jobs for turning out kids who can't read or add.

It certainly wasn't about the money. Chicago teachers were well-compensated before the strike. The average salary of the teachers is $71,000 annually, according to state data. On top of that, the negotiated deal that the union won't sign off on included a pay raise of 17.6 percent over four years. That would have put the average salary above $83,700 -- not bad in this economy. And yes, that was a negotiation. The union had initially demanded 30 percent. Chicago's public school district faces a billion-dollar deficit next year.

With the money question decided, there remained two main sticking issues for the union: a 2010 law that required teachers be evaluated based on student performance and the fact that Chicago was planning on closing and consolidating about 120 half-empty schools. The union doesn't want its members evaluated too heavily on whether their students actually get educated.

"You are going to judge me on the results of the tests where there could be some extenuating circumstances that are beyond my control?" Chicago phys-ed teacher Dean Refakes told the Associated Press.

Actually, no. Not solely, anyway. The law originally required that just 25 percent of a teacher's evaluation during his or her first two years be based on students' test scores and related academic measures. That was bumped up to 30 percent in the third year of a teacher's contract. Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted to go beyond this and base 40 percent on student performance, but he's settling for 30 percent. The union's leadership still can't sell its more radical constituents on the concept of doing the legal minimum.

Union President Karen Lewis said the other "elephant in the room" was the city's decision to close some of the many Chicago schools that are classified as "underutilized" -- half of all CPS school buildings had less than 80 percent of "ideal" enrollment in December -- and the teachers' fear that could result in them getting laid off.

The city agreed to give laid-off teachers from closed schools first dibs at open jobs in new schools but insisted that principals be able to hire the ones they thought best qualified. Also, layoffs would be based on teacher ratings, not seniority. Lewis went to the members Sunday with a deal that included some concessions from Emanuel on layoffs. Union delegates refused to sign off on the deal during a meeting Sunday, promoting two more days of strikes.

The atmosphere during the meeting was rancorous at times. Some "high ranking officials" in the union are regular contributors to socialist websites and were attacking Lewis as a "sellout," according to the Chicago Tribune.

That prompted Emanuel to seek an injunction Monday to end the strike. The city noted in its brief that the union was "striking over disputes concerning noneconomic subjects." This would make the strike illegal under state law, city lawyers argued.

Meanwhile, 350,000 students were at home for a second week, getting no education, as their exhausted parents scrambled to make alternate plans. Some kids went hungry because they relied on school lunches.

All because Chicago teachers didn't want to be evaluated on the education that they had been giving the students. So whatever you think of the strike, it wasn't done for the students' benefit.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washington examiner.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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