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What The World Is Saying About Chicago's Teacher Strike

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What The World Is Saying About Chicago Strike

Dick Johnson

Thousands of teachers rallied in downtown Chicago on Monday, the first day of the strike. This view is looking northwest from Clark and Monroe.

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The Chicago Teachers’ Strike has been making international news, because of its implications for the power of unions, the future of public education, and its role in the presidential election. Here is some of the best commentary from around the world.

Owen Harkness, The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Ont.:

This was another school with powerful and angry union leadership, where every time the principal had an idea about how to improve our school, teachers resisted. Their clinging to the specific details of what work looked like in their collective agreement seemed to prevent us from ever changing our practice, despite the clear statistics before us that showed our students failing.

It was a place where teachers operated with a lot of talk about union versus management, and not about students or their futures.

So I found myself…nodding in agreement during New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s anti-union speech at the Republican National Convention.

While I would rather have heard strategies than widespread denouncements, I don’t see how we can fix our schools if the unions don’t budge.
  
Tanveer Ali, The Atlantic Cities blog:

In Chicago, one out of every eight public school students attend charter schools. That means 52,000 public charter school students in Chicago have had class this week, while 350,000 others have been out of the classroom since the city’s first teachers strike in 25 years began Monday.

One major difference between the city's traditional Chicago Public Schools and public charter schools is that CPS teachers are represented by the Chicago Teachers Union. Most of Chicago’s charter teachers are not unionized. That very fact makes charter school officials and proponents see the strike as an opportunity, though most won't use that word. So far, picketing teachers clad in red t-shirts have been met with honks from cars in every corner of the city. But if the strike, which centers on job security and plans to evaluate teachers based on student performance, keeps students out of school for much longer, there's a distinct possibility that sympathy could erode and push more interest into the charter movement.

Michael Paarlberg, The Guardian, Manchester, England:

There was a time when teachers were lauded as local heroes: overworked, underpaid pillars of the community who could – with their credentials – earn more elsewhere, but chose to pursue a career sharing the joys of learning with kids. Politically, they were untouchable, up there with cops and firefighters. Endorsements by their unions were prized by politicians hoping to run as "the education candidate". 

Then, at a certain point, teachers' unions woke up to find their favorability rating hovering somewhere between al-Qaida's and herpes. This didn't happen overnight, but a confluence of state budget crises, urban blight and suburban flight, a well-funded school reform movement and private charter school industry created the need for a scapegoat for bad public schools.

Teachers' unions were slow to realize their scapegoating and its (for them) dangerous consequences. They were slow to defend against some of the more salacious – but fact-challenged – charges against them. And they have not responded effectively by articulating why teachers should have pensions, job security and collective bargaining rights when other workers were either losing theirs or never had them in the first place.

Unfortunately for the Chicago teachers, they are unlikely to see a change in the political weather any time soon. Their union is betting, in no small part, that the embarrassment the strike will cause the Democrats in an election year will push Obama to pressure Emanuel to fix a settlement. Signs point to no such outcome. President Obama sees this as a lose-lose situation – he'll be seen either as betraying his labor allies or as caving to special interests – and has explicitly stated his intention to remain uninvolved.

Instead, the strike presents less conflict-averse Democrats like Emanuel the opportunity to posture and show off his business-friendly bona fides for Independents and Republicans (Paul Ryan has already given him words of encouragement). And nothing has more bipartisan support than blaming teachers for problems mayors and congressional representatives can't solve.

Editorial, The New York Times:

Teachers’ strikes, because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea. The strike that has roiled the civic climate in Chicago — and left 350,000 children without classes — seems particularly senseless because it is partly a product of a personality clash between the blunt mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and the tough Chicago Teachers Union president, Karen Lewis. Beyond that, the strike is based on union discontent with sensible policy changes — including the teacher evaluation system required by Illinois law — that are increasingly popular across the country and are unlikely to be rolled back, no matter how long the union stays out.

Editorial, Peoria Journal Star:

Chicago teachers went on strike Monday for the first time in 25 years, putting 26,000 educators and some 400,000 students out of a classroom. Why should downstate care? Because gravity works the way it always does, and the issues up north will trickle down south eventually.

Specifically, the hurdles that remain involve a teacher evaluation process that puts unprecedented emphasis on student test scores and job security for employees in underperforming schools.

On the one hand, if you’re livelihood is going to be based primarily on the performance of others, well, understandably you’d want some influence over factors that are largely beyond the control of teachers now.

At a Caterpillar, for example, you can account for the quality of the raw materials going into the final product, but a classroom instructor has no say over what time a student went to bed the night before, or whether he had breakfast the morning of a critical test, or whether mom ever reads to him, or is even around. Again, the role of parents is utterly overlooked in school reform. It’s no small issue.

On the other hand, many public sector employees act as if their situations are uniquely unfair, an astonishing and perhaps willful disconnect with a private sector where wages have been frozen or worse for years, where pensions have all but disappeared, where job security is ... well, what’s that?
   
Valerie Strauss, “The Answer Sheet,” Washington Post

Once, labor unions could rely on Democratic politicians and Democratic politicians could rely on unions. In education reform today, that old equation doesn’t work. Democrats, including President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, who happens to come from Chicago, have embraced some school reform efforts that are championed by Republicans.

Though the two national teachers unions — the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — both endorsed Obama, many of their members are furious at the president’s initiatives that teachers believe amount to a potentially deadly assault on their profession. 

Those include teacher evaluation and pay that is linked to student standardized test scores, an assessment method that experts have warned repeatedly is extremely unreliable. But Emanuel — along with other mayors and governors — are implementing (or trying to) anyway. This is one of the big sticking points in the Chicago strike; Emanuel wants test scores to be 50 percent of teachers’ evaluations.

On one side of the divide is Emanuel, who is pushing reforms that the president’s own Education Department has been pushing for several years. Obama, of course, lived in Chicago before becoming president, and Duncan ran the Chicago public school system for more than seven years before joining Obama in Washington.

It would be impossible for Obama to come out against Emanuel.

Yet it would be equally impossible for him to come out against the union.

Saying Obama has chosen a side in the strike misses the point that he can’t.

Obama’s campaign needs the labor movement to help get out the vote in November and to go into the ballot box and pull the lever for the president. Some furious educators are saying they won’t vote for Obama, and though it isn’t likely that these traditional Democrats will switch their vote to Romney in big numbers, they could vote for a minor party or stay home.

NBC Chicago has an array of reporters and producers covering the Chicago teacher strike. Check our live blog for continuous coverage and updates throughout the strike.

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