Will: Teachers unions still struggling




The name of the nation’s largest labor union — the National Education Association — seems calculated to blur the fact that it is a teachers union. In Chicago, however, the teachers union candidly calls itself the Chicago Teachers Union. Its office is in the Merchandise Mart, which resembles a fortress on the Chicago River, which resembles a moat. This is all appropriate.

Unions — especially public-sector unions, particularly teachers unions — are besieged and nowhere more than in Chicago. Teachers unions have been bombarded with bad publicity, much of it earned, and have courted trouble by cashing in on sentimentality, cloaking every demand in gauzy rhetoric about how everything is “for the children.”

Still, have sympathy for Karen Lewis, 58, a Dartmouth graduate who is a daughter of two black teachers. She taught chemistry for 22 years until becoming president of the 26,502-member CTU. Her job is to make life better for her members, not to make life easier for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The mayor says that improved city schools might stop the exodus to the suburbs of parents whose children are ready for high school, so he wants a longer school year and school day. America’s school year (about 180 days) is one of the shortest in the industrial world. And while middle-class children might leaven their summers with strolls through the Louvre, less privileged children experience summer learning loss. Remediation requires the first few weeks of the fall term, which further shortens the school year. And Chicago’s school day is the shortest of any large American district.

The CTU wants a pay raise — 30 percent — proportional to Emanuel’s 90-minute increase in the school day and 10-day increase in the school year. He has canceled a 4 percent raise and offers only 2 percent. He says the benefits the CTU has won could in just three years force property taxes up 150 percent and require classrooms of 55 students.

Just as corporations’ responsibility is to maximize shareholder value, a union’s principal task is to enhance members’ well-being: wages, benefits, working conditions.

But salaries and pensions might not be the most problematic point of contention. It might be teacher “accountability.” Lewis says, “We can’t choose the children that come into our classrooms.” Low pupil performances strongly correlate with low household incomes in Chicago schools.

Teachers unions, however, have painted themselves into a corner by insisting that spending is the best predictor of educational performance. But in the past 50 years, per-pupil spending nationwide has tripled and the number of pupils per teacher has declined by a third, yet educational attainments have fallen. Data demonstrate that the majority of differences in performances can be explained by qualities of the families from which the children come to school: the amount of homework done at home, the quantity and quality of reading material in the home, the amount of television watched in the home and the number of parents in the home.

Emanuel got state law changed to require unions to get 75 percent of the entire membership, rather than a simple majority, to authorize a strike. Some said this would make strikes impossible. The CTU got 90 percent to authorize. Lewis’ members are rightfully annoyed.