Rahmbo v CTU: A Bruising Battle for the Heart of the Democratic Party and School Reform

The unions cannot strike in Chicago. . . . They will never be able to muster the 75 percent threshold.

— Johah Edelman, Executive Director Stand for Children on Illinois legislation Senate Bill 7

It’s like like the Mos Def lyrics in Mathematics, ‘Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret: the million other straws underneath it – it’s all mathematics.’

— Interview with a striking Chicago grade school teacher, 9/12/2012

To some ears, Senate Bill 7 sounds like an obscure punk band out of Venice Beach.  One can just imagine concert posters with a toothy caricature of Bill Clinton in punk garb surrounded by six dour Senators equally as dismal in their appearance as Clinton is joyous.  Unfortunately Senate Bill 7 encapsulates what much of the ruckus coming out of Chicago is really about.  Much like the already painful presidential election, the 2012 Chicago Teachers strike represents two very different visions of American public education and traverses a number of subjects along the way from the obvious, education reform, to the emergent discourse of children – the way in which both sides manipulate the idea of “it’s all for the children” to justify their position –  to the rapid changes in employment that have befallen families over the past 25 years.

As absurdist as it sounds, the Bill Clinton analogy above provides a useful means by which to enter this discussion.  Clinton’s recent robust, self absorbed, folksy, and ultimately neutron star-like DNC speech aside, many Democrats forget that Clinton represented a then-controversial wing of the Democratic Party.  Often heralding the work of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a non-profit group begun in 1985 to promote a more business friendly Democratic party, Clinton long carried water for their ideas. Throughout his presidency, many on the left criticized him sharply for his centrist ways.  Clinton’s business friendly approach represented a move to the center for Democrats and he embraced the deregulation arguments of many conservatives on the right.  The eradication of the Glass-Steagall Act and welfare reform best embody Clinton’s approach.

Guess who served as Clinton’s senior advisor from 1993–1998?  None other than the irrepressible Mayor of Chicago Dick Dal… err, Rahm Emanuel. To be fair, having been out of office for 12 years since the Reagan Revolution, at the time, many in the Democratic Party felt necessary a shift to the right to maintain any real sort of electoral relevance. Accordingly, Rahm, Clinton, and others believed that Democrats could chart a new political course, a “third way” if you will, to political and economic prominence. Rahm’s embrace of market-oriented reforms like charter schools and his wariness of unions probably stems from this foundational belief.

Though Emanuel appears isolated right now, ToM education correspondent Shane Updike notes that politicians like Cory Booker, who took Obama to task for what he perceived as anti-business comments earlier this year, and even the President privately are hoping for a defeat of the CTU.  “These are guys who are tied to cities and know, frankly, how bad schools are in cities.  They are still pro teacher but they want to reform education and make it so that kids can better compete in a globalized world,” Updike tells ToM.  “They would probably agree that teachers should be paid more, but that teachers should also be subject to evaluations and being able to be fired.  They will not side with Rahm in the Chicago fight publicly but I imagine they are cheering for him internally.”

Of course, the local political story has become a bit more muddled as well. Initially, Chicago’s aldermen (a dubious lot even in the best of times) threw their support behind the mayor, but recently cracks have begun to show. South Side alderman Roderick Sawyer (6th ward) suggested despite their personal feelings toward one another CTU leader Lewis and Emanuel needed to sit down and bang out an agreement. “Once they get to the room and understand that the children are the focus, they will get a deal done. … I’m confident that will happen,” Sawyer told reporters yesterday. Some aldermen expressed greater frustration with the mayor. Second ward alderman Bob. Fioretti took direct aim at Emanuel in comments to the media. “The whole aspect of how this started down that road and who started it. … It was from Day One about [the mayor] demonizing the teachers. The teachers aren’t the bad guys in this,” noted Fioretti.

So then what was Senate Bill 7, the measure that seems to have ignited this conflagration? To put it simply, this bill passed the Illinois legislature in May of 2011.  As Carol Marin noted in a recent column, the bill had been championed as education reform, but in reality operated as a means to undermine or weaken collective bargaining by the union.  The new legislation required a 75% threshold for CTU to approve a strike and refused to count absentee ballots. University of Illinois Chicago Professor and labor expert Bob Bruno informed Marin that such thresholds were unprecedented:  “No other union in the history in America has ever had to hit a 75 percent vote of membership.”  With that said, few unions have ever displayed the solidarity of the CTU, whose membership voted a 90% approval for the strike. Moreover, months earlier, Emanuel made the decision to abrogate a contractually agreed-to four percent pay raise that the previous mayor, Richard Daley had negotiated.  At the time, Emanuel summarized his decision in terms that depicted teachers as striking gold with such pay increases while students got “shafted,” since no additional classroom time had been added. The combination of the two events within a year’s time served to radicalize a teachers union that may have been more divided than Emanuel realized.  As one teacher told ToM, one of the unintended consquences of the strike so far has been to unite teachers in ways that planned retreats and professional development days simply could not: “[The strike] is an authentic and real means” to achieve a solidarity that might have been previously lacking.

Some on the left have argued that many commentators, conservative and liberals alike, seem to believe teachers and like public sector unions have no right to demand better wages or protest work conditions and rules thrust upon them by municipal governments like that of Emanuel. The ultimate goal, they argue, isn’t education reform but union busting.  As one ToM editor says, “The basic idea that workers (particularly teachers) have any right to demand any more than the power structure deigns to give them is under basic assault, behind the illusion of this being about incompetent, greedy teachers bleeding the city dry.”

So just who is Jonah Edelman? Is he a right wing warrior destined to cut taxes and government waste? If one looks at the resume of the Stand for Children Executive Director, politically he looks like Rahm Emanuel. The son of prominent Civil Rights Activist Marion Wright Edelman (also founder and Chairman of the Children’s Defense Fund) and former Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under John F. Kennedy, Peter Edelman (now a Professor at Georgetown – both parents periodically blog for the Huffington Post), Edelman has often promoted grassroots education initiatives through his organization and enlisted the advice of activists like Marshal Ganz and Cesar Chavez. Yet, when he pushed Senate Bill 7, Edelman confessed to using the bluntest, least participatory tactics known to democracy: lobbying.  He basically dumped a lot of money into Illinois legislative races, lobbyists, and Emanuel’s mayoral campaign.  Edelman adopted the tactics of an American political system increasingly enthralled to money and not just for purely selfish reasons. Election campaigns cost so much, even state senators have to build war chests. Needless to say, though his mother was an aid to Martin Luther King, MLK never employed these means, though considering today’s reality maybe he would have.

Opponents of the CTU claim that the union is acting cynically, making a grab for control of schools and greedily reaching into ever diminishing municipal coffers for better wages. At least that seems to be largely how the national media treats the issue.  CTU leaders and members argue, however, that the conflict comes down to whose vision of public education one embraces: the charter schools’ pro-business, antiunion approach or the more traditional public school structure that the CTU’s parent organization the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) supports (while recognizing the need for change). “Everyone is focused on Chicago, but we have reached 10 different agreements in the last month,” former New York UFT leaders and now AFT President Randi Weingarten told the New York Times this week.  “You have lots of teachers’ unions and their districts working together like never before,” she told the paper. Indeed, during her tenure at the UFT, Weingarten traded higher wages for longer hours, looser tenure rules, and charter schools. This writer can attest personally to working under expired contracts for years while Weingarten and the UFT brokered deals with Mayor Bloomberg and the city. Undoubtedly, the union made mistakes, like sometimes caring too much about protecting bad teachers out of principle than helping new ones establish themselves. “They are not necessarily anti reform but it takes a definite backseat to union power and making it possible for the middle class to earn a good living,” commented Updike.  Like many large organizations, it sometimes defends the interests of its workers over others, which in a communal setting like a school system creates animosities. The point being, teacher’s unions, while problematic, have heard criticism and witnessed defeats.  As a result, they have adjusted demands and expectations.  Media outlets ignore much of this, focusing on the Wisconsin protests and Chicago as the complete representation of this segment of the workforce.

On the other hand, the promise of charter schools has been trumpeted widely by conservatives and liberals. Ironically, the entire charter school impetus was the brainchild AFT President Albert Shanker (1974-1997), who believed charters could help reach some of the systems’ most troubled and disengaged students. However, when Shanker realized pro-business forces wanted to use them as a means to privatize school systems, he pulled his support. Figures like former head of the D.C. schools Michelle Rhee, herself a product of the for-profit school movement, received glowing coverage for their no-nonsense, accountability ensured strategies.  In fact, as documented by this blog and others, her reforms have been less successful than depicted.  Others have pointed to documentaries like Waiting for Superman, which have presented teachers’ unions as the problem and business oriented charter schools as the answer. President Obama also endorses the charter revolution. Yet as eminent education historian Diane Ravitch points out, charters perform roughly as well and as poorly as public schools.  Moreover, despite making up 3% of enrollment they receive disproportionate amounts of media attention. Even the most successful charter school operation, KIPP, only operates 100 schools nationally.  Ravitch undressed documentaries like Waiting for Superman in a January 2011 review in the New York Review of Books, criticizing the movie for its emphasis on teachers alone:

The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement. But this proposition is false. Hanushek has released studies showing that teacher quality accounts for about 7.5–10 percent of student test score gains. Several other high-quality analyses echo this finding, and while estimates vary a bit, there is a relative consensus: teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes. Teachers are the most important factor within schools.

Additionally, the idea that charters will suddenly have the infrastructure and organization to completely replace our public schools appears wildly at odds with what we know about public education. Charters represent a valuable addition, but not the panacea everyone seems to think. Ravitch herself once aligned with Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy and moved in the direction of Emanuel in the early aughts but by the end of W’s presidency came out loudly against NCLB. In recent months, Ravitch has criticized some of the new education reform movement’s most vocal advocates and panned Mitt Romney’s white paper on education reform.

No one ever discusses the fact that charter schools largely benefit or aim to benefit non-white often lower income and working class populations, meaning poverty must play some role in the struggles of public education. In Chicago, the dynamics of this relationship remains particularly tricky.  Sure, many charters target working class African American and Latino students, so some parents will see the strike as retarding these efforts.  However, due to the prominent roles of African American and Latino teachers in the city’s middle classes, the reaction of over half of Chicago’s population (combined Latinos and African Americans easily make up over half of the city) to the strike could be dizzyingly complicated.

Outside of this issue, however, one other aspect of school critiques deserves attention. As noted, everyone pretends that the teachers are the only issue.  What about the administrators who function as mid-level management, below the principal but above pedagogues? Why does no one ever mention their stake in this? Rest assured, bad Assistant Principals can lay waste to vibrant social studies and English departments.

In the end, the CTU strike will play out in the media and on the streets.  If Daniel HoSang, Matthew Lassiter and others have captured how conservatives in the post war period appropriated the language of civil rights, melding it with free markets and individual choice to make appeals based on race-neutral language that had implications that were more than simply economic, the CTU battle highlights the not-so-new discourse of using children as a means to shroud wider implications.  Think of it this way, the profession of teaching often finds itself depicted as a “calling,” somewhere between a vocation and a good-natured compulsion. Thus, when teachers strike, some view it as a betrayal: teachers should be willing to sacrifice their own interests for the children.  The CTU has turned this debate on its head by arguing that wages are not the issue; rather, the mayor’s vision for the Chicago schools would cripple the children they are accused of neglecting. One teacher this blog spoke too attested to the fact that the resources of many Chicago schools remain starkly inadequate such that co-workers bring in their own toilet paper to work for fear of students not having access to any when the need should arise. Striking CPS teacher and mother of two CPS students Mary Green reiterated this argument, noting that “access to classroom and extracurricular resources, like a well-stocked library and computer labs,” served as the a primary goal among union rank and file. The power of children in this discourse can disguise intentions. In 2008, California advocates of the controversial Prop 8 amendment – which banned gay marriage in the state – presented the referendum as less about gay marriage and more about public education.

Using “the children” to oppose same sex marriage in CA

From a pop culture perspective, society displays a schizophrenic view of teachers. In a recent blog post by Corey Robin, the Brooklyn College professor notes that though his own middle class public schooling resulted in numerous students attending elite colleges, the teachers that facilitated their admissions were often viewed pitiably or worse, disdainfully:

[M]any people I grew up with treated teachers as bumptious figures of ridicule—and not in your anarchist-critique-of-all-social-institutions kind of way.

It’s clear where the kids got it from: the parents. Every year there’d be a fight in the town over the school budget, and every year a vocal contingent would scream that the town was wasting money (and raising needless taxes) on its schools. Especially on the teachers (I never heard anyone criticize the sports teams). People hate paying taxes for any number of reasons—though financial hardship, in this case, was hardly one of them—but there was a special pique reserved for what the taxes were mostly going to: the teachers.

Robins admits his analysis is impressionistic but it’s not altogether off.  This writer on one occasion was called a part time worker by an operative in the Queens GOP, so this view does prevail among some. Others point to movies like Bad Teacher, Teachers (Nick Nolte), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where the profession seems less than professional. However, one could lodge a less damning, simpler critique: Everybody thinks they know how to teach.  Most of us attended at least twelve years of education. Many leading education reformers attended relatively violent free middle class public or private schools. As students, we developed opinions and ideas about our experiences, since everyone has gone to school, everyone thinks they know how to run one. This becomes hard wired so that many people with absolutely no experience in education, especially in underfunded, overcrowded inner city schools, feel they know as much about being a principal or teacher as professionals do.  This also raises the stakes in these conflicts.

The movie “Teachers” circa 1984

Education occupies a critical space in any nation. The aforementioned Ravitch demonstrated in her history of the New York City school system that the city’s educators sought to assimilate immigrants as much as educate them, modeling for newcomers just how to be “American.” Lisa McGirr documents the importance of schools in the growing New Right movement of the 1950s in Orange County, CA. Orange County parents feared the creeping spread of liberalism into their children’s schools. Public education served as the perfect site for 1960s push back. “[New Right advocates] often chose schools as a focus because they wished to inculcate in their children the religious and social values they held dear.” (74) Obviously, the civil rights struggles over integration also provide several examples, such as Brown v. the Board of Education and the desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas – each represented a battle over what exactly defined our nation and schools acted as a conduit for these clashes. In a March 2012 special edition of the Journal of Urban History, Jack Dougherty, Karen Benjamin, Matthew Lassiter and Ansley T. Erickson placed schools at the center of metropolitan debates over housing values and segregation patterns. The animated responses put forth by both sides of the debate reflects this importance.

As of Wednesday, September 12, 2012 the CTU enjoyed the support of 47% of Chicago’s registered voters with 39% in opposition and another 14% remaining undecided.  Undoubtedly, these numbers could change quickly.  If the strike revealed anything, it demonstrated how much parents depend on today’s public schools for more than just education. Schools, though not free of violence, can offer safe havens from neighborhoods struggling from crime. Federal provisions that provide free or reduced lunches help subsidize the diets of children throughout the US, but especially in urban areas like Chicago. As the Sun Times noted, the 2012 conflict strikes more deeply at the economies of families. In 2000, families featuring two working parents became the norm. The concurrent rise in poorly paid service sector jobs and an economy still struggling to produce new opportunities meant for numerous parents, the strike threatened their gainful employment. Marina Watts told the Sun Times she feared for her job: “As long as they’re on strike, I can’t work. I’m not getting paid, either.” For working and middle class parents, a prolonged strike threatens their livelihood in ways that Chicago’s previous 1987 labor dispute did not. Of course, the Sun Times’ logic has holes.  What about single mothers or working class mothers and those in the lower middle class? With diminishing teen pregnancy rates today, one might argue that 1987 (a moment when teen pregnancies had risen to alarming levels) might have been worse for lower income single mothers but news agencies at the time like the Sun Times just didn’t pay attention.

One could see how this cuts both ways.  Numerous parents probably relate to the teachers union and their struggles, but they also must feel constrained by today’s brutal economic factors. How this breaks down as the strike goes on is anyone’s guess. A veteran CPS teacher with nearly 20 years of teaching experience admitted that though united in their protest the longer the conflict drags on the bigger the risk. “If this is a two week thing it’s going to be ugly. Whatever we get, is that going to be worth the cost?”  Shane Updike too wonders about how the attempts to lure the middle class back to the cities may have shaped the political outcome of this fight. “I would also imagine that Chicago, like most major cities in the US, has probably experienced some movement back to the cities by the middle class and some gentrification since the 80s,” Updike reflected.  “These middle class families, if they do send their kids to public school, probably just want better schools for their kids and may see teachers, or at least the teachers union, as an impediment to their kid getting a good education.” Additionally, the hollowing out of industrial employment and the rise of service industry jobs could serve as a force to alienate parents as well. “Paradoxically, the worsening inequality in cities- low paid service employees on one end and upper middle class gentrifiers who 25 years ago would have probably lived in the suburbs on the other end- with not a hell of a lot in the middle,” Updike point out, “probably means that there is less sympathy for the strikers than there would have been 25 years ago when there was less inequality and more union power.”  In the end, upper class parents just want their kids ready for the globalized world that awaits, while lower income parents just want a better education for their kids and in some cases might resent teachers for their salaries and summers off. In Updike’s view, the strike very well might turn out badly for educators: “I think teachers in Chicago- and maybe everywhere- are going to come out of this looking worse.”

As this blog went to publish, the pressure of the strike on all sides was mounting. The political discipline of Emanuel’s aldermanic support appeared to be eroding and polls suggest that even if people disapproved of the union, they held even dimmer views of Emanuel’s handling of the situation. Unsurprisingly, in one of the nation’s last bastions of organized labor , the police,  firefighter, and janitor unions all have expressed support for the CTU. This morning news reports allege that the mayor is seeking a court injunction to end the strike. Yet, as noted above, how a protracted conflict will affect relations and political fights remains to be seen. The demonization of teachers unions and fetishization of charters, both of which lean too far, has established discourse that may be more limiting than reformers and union advocates would like. Where it goes from here remains a question whose answer may define urban political education for sometime.