The Chicago Model Fallout Revisited: Catharsis, Context and Circumstance

15 09 2012

The Chicago Teachers’ Union strike was not unpredictable, nor was it sudden, nor was it over merely details, free of context, that are the subjects of the collective bargaining negotiations.

Since at least 1995, but particularly since 2004, Chicago’s students and teachers have borne the pain of experimentation, like lab mice in an education policy laboratory. That context is important, and it is inextricably linked to the nature of the strike and the source of its support among teachers, parents, students, the public–most everyone it seems, except journalists and powerful politicians.

For those who have sat in cramped rooms with parents and their children, railing to insular bureaucrats about the damage caused by suddenly shutting down schools and firing staff, who have listened to numerous award winning teachers thrown out of a job in a turnaround because of standardized tests of questionable efficacy, who sat overnight with mothers who had to go on hunger strikes to get new school facilities from an unelected and unaccountable school board, who have interviewed dozens of charter school teachers bemoaning horrible working conditions but frightened to speak on the record for fear of retribution–the strike was catharsis. Catharsis can often result in fighting words and short tempers. That’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation.

For a decade, policy had been dictated top-down, with little to no meaningful parent, student, or teacher participation. Finally, those to whom terms were being dictated were asserting their own agency. In fact, their own humanity.

What they earned from their supposed friends in media, particularly among a set of liberal policy journalists, was scorn, condescension, and assertions of authority supposedly grounded in data but in fact borne mostly out of ideology and free of historical context.

But we’re all reasonable people, and there is a reasonable discussion to be had. Let’s give it a shot.

Why Context Matters

In 1988, Chicago did something radical. It decentralized control of the schools, gave individual principals and schools some degree of autonomy over curricula and spending. Parents could elect leadership to appoint a principal and spend money. Students elected a member to participate in a real way in government–which encouraged giving students choice over electives, extracurriculars, and the school’s policy generally. Elected Local School Councils (LSCs) gave literal, binding voice to parents, students, principals and teachers over the operation of individual schools. It also permitted indirect public control over the Board of Education, then consisting of 15 members, because the Local School Councils elected the body that nominated its members. The 1988 school code reforms, the result of a decade of organizing that was accelerated by the election of Mayor Harold Washington in 1983 and reelection in 1987, were truly people powered.

Only seven years later, in 1995, the Amendatory Act changed that. With help from a Republican legislature and governor, Mayor Daley, having successfully fended off two successive challenges from what remained of Mayor Washington’s coalition, wanted to take control of the Board. By legislation he reduced it to 5 members he nominated, displacing the Superintendent with a CEO he appointed, and limiting teachers’ rights to negotiate over classroom conditions.

This was particularly important because control over the school board along with control over the Park District gave the Mayor’s office effectively complete control over the creation, administration, and oversight of tax increment finance (TIF) districts, via the Joint Review Boards that create them. In the seventeen years since, hundreds of millions of dollars have been diverted from the school district. Only with tireless advocacy from community and parents groups, the teachers union, and a particularly doggged journalist did TIF oversight come to Chicago. And in fact, Mayor Emanuel has taken positive steps towards increasing transparency to TIF districts, after twenty years of fairly intense opacity from the previous administration.

These changes locked parents out of day-to-day, and even year-to-year, administration of the schools. All power was routed through the Fifth Floor. Beginning in 1995, and accelerating again with the introduction of a program called Renaissance 2010, parent and teacher influence on policy dissipated. High-stakes testing increased. Thousands of teachers, particularly experienced teachers and people of color, were laid off. Scores of schools were closed and privately-run charter schools, free of LSC control and some with dubious models, were created.

Teacher, student, and parent voices were increasingly locked out of education policy. On curricula, on spending, on tax policy, those with the most experience in education and with the most at stake were those least able to influence decision making. Mayor Daley acknowledged an explicit desire to remove educators from the equation in order to allow room for those with management experience. (“It is only after we separated the two—skilled educator and strong manager—that we started to see real reform.” in Sadovi, Carlos, and Dan Mihalopoulos. “Daley Standing by School Chief Choice – Huberman Appointment Called Political,” Chicago Tribune, January 29, 2009). It was a victory of technocracy over democracy, without hard data to justify such a baldly anti-democratic move.

Technocrats, Red Herrings, and Ideology

The issues become confused, ideology takes over, and technocrats in particular face a practical problem: all evidence indicates that the public, and perhaps most importantly, those with the most experience and stakes in the conflict between the school board and the teachers–parents, students, and teachers–side at a much greater rate with the teachers’ union.

The initial technocratic impulse was twofold: focus on the fine points of data where there is disagreement, and express that focus as one resulting solely out of concern for children. A post at Ezra Klein’s policy blog opened the week with an article claiming that teachers’ strike have long-term effects on children. The implication being that teachers are unconcerned with the effect of their action.

The editorial decision to isolate the effect of strikes on children is somewhat ideologically loaded. Even forgetting for a moment the questionable “definitive” quality of the studies cited, there is also the forest and trees issue. Perhaps a strike has some negative effect on children’s “educational outcomes” (i.e., learning); but so to do a number of the issues teachers fight for: ending the emphasis on high-stakes testing, improving classroom conditions including wraparound services, even air conditioning to alleviate broiling room temperatures. Should teachers achieve some of these reformers, the effect of a strike, if there was any, would be mitigated, subsumed, or nonexistent. That would have been a more appropriate and less loaded analysis, because strikes do not happen for no reason, but for aims that potentially redound to the benefits of students. Teachers’ organizations have been often a lone large-scale, effective voice for classroom and other issues like parent governance of the schools through LSCs and an elected school board. A strike to forestall their liquidation as advocates for those policies is not immaterial.

The reason it is important for technocratic critics of teachers’ unions to question teachers’ commitment to students is because the source of policy and political authority for market-style reform is not itself rooted in any social relation to the communities involved in public education. The groups that have pushed this style of reform on Chicago are not local, are unelected, and are not accountable to communities. The Broad and Gates Foundations, Stand for Children, Advance Illinois and Democrats for Education Reform are not grassroots groups. They are funded by a small coterie of the very wealthy and thus unaccountable to parents, students, or teachers. They use high-level political relationships and corporate political spending to introduce legislation that actually constricts the ability of democratic bodies–like LSCs and the teachers union–from having an impact on policy. The executive director of Stand For Children, Jonah Edelman, acknowledged in a talk that in just a few short months, his organization was able to raise more money than the teachers unions (statewide) held in PACs in order to pass market-style reform legislation in 2011. Teachers unions PACs in contrast are funded by small-dollar giving by tens of thousands of donors.

The public didn’t seem to bite on the questionable idea that parents are unconcerned with students. So an alternate, and also ideologically loaded tack was to scorn the idea that teachers deserved “more money,” a red herring since pay was not a major sticking point in the negotiations.*

They wrote about how Chicago teachers earn a median of $74,000 (including the district’s pension pick-up), while the median Chicago household earns $47,000. Just the facts, right?

No; that too is an ideological choice.

Forgetting for a moment that teachers, who perform a difficult and necessary service, should not have to apologize for their salary, consider this:

The income figure ignores a number of facts that common sense and a bit of googling would have made obvious. First, the pension pick-up is equivalent to the employer-paid portion social security (which teachers don’t pay into). Second, the median Chicago teacher is not comparable to the median Chicagoan for a number of reasons.

First, the median age of Chicago teachers is 42 years of age, and the median years of teaching experience is 14 years. Second, one hundred percent of teachers have a bachelors degree plus a period of “apprenticeship” in the form of student teaching, and about 60% of teachers hold a master’s degree. Third, and very importantly, the $74,000 figure includes administrators who still hold a teaching certificate but are not in the classrooms–this not insignificant group makes well into six figures. Is $74,000, including pension pick-up, incommensurate with 14 years in the same job and with an advanced degree? As Whet Moser at Chicago Magazine points out, it is not; in fact, it is perfectly commensurate. Matthew Yglesias of Slate made a similar point in a post, comparing the Chicago teachers figure to college graduates nationally, and pointing out that it is a good strategy for the school district to pay college-educated professionals the national mean for…college education professionals, using the following graph:

The CPS has to compete in a labor market with well-funded suburban school districts ringing Chicago–the result of white flight–with significantly better social conditions in which to teach, and without a requirement that you live in the town where you teach, which Chicago still has. While a Chicago teacher makes slightly above the mean for teachers in the metropolitan statistical area, that figure is not dispositive because it includes exurban, semi-rural, and post industrial communities at the far reach of the region–think of northern Lake County, McHenry County, and the western and southern parts of DuPage and Will County, areas more than an hour away from Chicago as a commute. CPS does not compete with those poorer, more rural areas for labor as much as with the dense ring of well-off bedroom communities to the North, Northwest, West, and Southwest–in a solid ring from the North Shore, through places like Buffalo Grove, Wheeling, Schaumburg, Streamwood, Roselle, Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, the Paloses, Bolingbrook, etc., etc. While there is a group of poor suburbs to the direct south, they are the exception in the immediate area.

Some mock the idea of concern over job security for well educated professionals. But job security is what makes them professionals. “The professions” are defined by members’ control over the profession. Doctors through the American Medical Association “artificially” restrict the number of doctors–by accrediting medical schools, creating and requiring passage of licensing exams, and prescribing standards that in turn govern workplace rules. The American and state Bar Associations do the same for attorneys. Any number of professions–accountants, engineers, architects–have similar cartels with lesser degrees of authority.

Teachers have no such cartel. Rather, they have unions and associations that through a combination of workplace agreements, moral suasion, and legislative advocacy, create a profession by setting workplace standards, creating licensing standards, requiring continuing education and more.

When the teachers fight for job security, for recall of teachers laid off through no fault of their own, and for an end to high-stakes testing with little utility for individual evaluation, it is to preserve the integrity of the association that enforces the profession. Without that association, they will be unable to collectively enforce the workplace conditions that make teaching a profession in the first place. Where there is no bargaining representative to deal with the employer, conditions and wages will go down–the evidence is there in the conditions and wages at charter schools, and also from common sense. If you have no contract and no job protection, why should a principal keep you around if you complain about–or refuse to work in–cramped classrooms, teaching only to tests; or submitting to pressure to change test results? Without an effective legislative advocate, how can teachers compete with charter operators (essentially an employers’ association) and market-style reformers as lobbying forces creating legislation?

When the National Labor Relations Act was passed, it included provisions that required an employer to bargain with the “exclusive” bargaining representative of employees organized in a union. The reasoning according to the statute was to allow employees to end the intra-employer competition that drove down conditions, benefits and wages–this is actually stated in the Act:

The inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract and employers who are organized in the corporate…forms of ownership association…tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates and working conditions within and between industries.

Teachers are not governed by the NLRA, but state labor statutes are modeled after it, and the reasoning applies: single employers organized into corporate forms have a superior bargaining power over atomized employees, so employees compete with each other by accepting worse conditions and lower wages. School districts, created by voters long before teachers unions existed, are monopsony buyers of teacher labor; one buyer of labor. Without a single seller of labor to bargain (e.g., unions), individual teachers will never be able to bargain on an even ground and thus will compete downward with other teachers on matters of compensation and classroom conditions.

Critics contend: every tax dollar you spend on a teacher’s salary is a tax dollar you do not spend on a poor child. But if that teacher is teaching a poor child, of course that dollar is being spent on a poor child. When you pay a nurse, you are paying for patient care. When you pay a child care provider, you are paying for child care. Accepting the idea that you need competitive salaries to attract better talent, in fact, the more you spend attracting teachers to teach in the district, the more you spend on that poor child.

But that argument is facile for another reason, because it is parents and teachers, locked out of schools governance by market reforms, who oppose the tax policies that have sapped the schools of revenue and made further property tax increases untenable. And the weaker the teachers become as an organized force, so too does their capacity to challenge those policies diminish.

Who Speaks For the Children?

Both sides claim to speak for or on behalf of children and parents (whose interests are presumably coterminous). Technocrats–a shorthand for those who support market-style reforms, embodied by groups like Stand for Children, and expressed through the Board of Education–do not see themselves as dupes for privatization. It is uncharitable to characterize them that way; take them at face value when they say they only want to improve outcomes for students. Similarly however, it is uncharitable to accuse teachers of being unconcerned with the plight of their students, particularly their poor students. The fact that they have committed their lives to a career educating children that will never make them wealthy, and at best make them middle class, earns them at least that presumption.

So let’s just consider some undeniable facts.

1. The corporate reform era, dated to 1995 in Chicago, has been characterized by a diminishing role for parents in particular but teachers as well in schools governance.

2. Charters, which have replaced public schools at an increasing clip and which Mayor Emanuel plans to greatly expand, are not governed by local school councils, elected by neighborhoods and including parents, teachers, the principal, and a student.

3. The Board of Ed, once nominated through Local School Councils, and thus connected materially to the education community, is now smaller and wholly appointed, and thus insulated from public pressure, in a way not dissimilar to the Federal Reserve.

4. The Amendatory Act of 1995 and SB7 of 2011 removed student-advocacy topics as areas of negotiation for the teachers union, thus limiting teacher voice in learning conditions.

5. These reforms were not pushed by a grassroots movement of parents, teachers, or students, but by well-funded education reformers, often from out of state, spending the money of a small cohort of education-focused millionaires. Thus, those pushing these reforms have no material connection or accountability to the education community.

That the Mayor is elected and in turn appoints the Board and CEO is not convincing, because public school parents have an equal vote with private school parents and childless adults; and because in casting a single vote for Mayor, voters must reconcile and prioritize a host of issues–housing, taxes, infrastructure, etc. Parents are not only parents; they are also taxpayers, workers, bus riders, business owners, park users, etc., etc.

6. Particularly since the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) took over the Chicago Teachers Union in a hotly contested election in 2010, the teachers’ union has advocated repeatedly for at least a partially elected school board, more parental governance over charter schools, and an end to the practice of constraining parental power over “probation” schools (making LSCs merely advisory when schools are unilaterally placed on probation without an appeals procedure).

These are not characterizations, but facts. You can deny that LSCs and an elected school board would make good decisions for the schools, but it cannot be contested that they would make democratic decisions for the schools–decisions that come from parents, teachers, and students, that reflect their desires, experience, and priorities.

The technocratic impulse is that democracy is not necessarily desirable–after all, we want the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, to be staffed by environmental scientists, not elected at large. But a desire for policy expertise is qualitatively different from saying you’re speaking on behalf of parents and children. In fact it is the inverse: you are substituting your judgment for theirs in school governance. Just as by weakening teachers’ ability to bargain collectively over classroom conditions, you are substituting your judgment for theirs over what classroom conditions are optimal.

Ideally, then, neither the teachers union nor the think tanks and non-profits that compose the market-reform lobby should speak for parents and children. Ideally they would speak for themselves through elective and participatory democratic institutions. What better way to test the claims of the teachers union that they are acting on behalf of parents and students than by giving voice to parents and students on the school board and on LSCs–the teachers’ employers?

Notably, one side is willing to engage in that experiment. The other side is not.

“Supporting The Strike”

Does one have to support the strike to be a good liberal, national political journalists asked.

The answer is no, of course not. When Congress passed the Norris-LaGaurdia Act forbidding courts from issuing injunctions in labor disputes in the 1930s, it did so with the intent of ending the practice of substituting judicial judgment for that of employers and employees in labor disputes. One can be a “good liberal” (whatever that means) and feel that one or the other side is overreaching, or erroneous, on certain points of contention. The real issue is whether one substitutes their judgments about the wisdom of striking–discounting the agency of the workforce.

Because labor disputes cannot always be boiled down merely to elements of a collective bargaining agreement, free of context. When the Memphis sanitation workers marched with signs reading, “I Am a Man,” it was not because they believed that a contract with the city of Memphis could grant them humanity. It was because the atmosphere of unilateral decision-making robbed them of something more numinous: their dignity and agency in the workplace, one of the most important parts of a human being’s life.

Workers’ right to strike is as much a question of that dignity and agency as it is about articles in a collective bargaining agreement. Roll your eyes if you must, but that is an incontrovertible fact. It is telling that during the 1983 legislative debates surrounding the creation of teachers’ right to collectively bargain and strike, supporters of the bill pointed out that teachers were already constantly striking. The right to strike merely made legislative real something that existed in fact. The right to concerted activity, of agency in the workplace, inheres in workers whether or not the sovereign acknowledges it.

Whatever the data may tell you, a lack of a voice in the workplace, the unilateral dictation of policy, degrades the individual subject to that dictation. It may not be readily quantifiable, just as the Memphis sanitation workers’ feelings of an imposed inhumanity was not, but that doesn’t mean it is unreal. It is very real. What would make you a “bad liberal” or “bad progressive” would be an impulse to deny workers real, material agency in their work lives. Strikes are as much about asserting that agency as they are about contract terms.

If we combine, first, the reasonable position that teachers, at least in the mean, do care sincerely about their life’s work–educating children–with, next, a recognition of the basic desirability of the right of workplace agency, then it is hard to arrive at a conclusion that does not recognize that teachers striking are doing so at least on reasonable grounds. That perhaps it is not fair to characterize teachers as being uncaring about the effect on students, of being reckless in their decision, and of somehow acting entitled. A strike is often a collective plea for recognition of worker agency.

Given the context discussed above–seventeen years of less-than-democratic decision-making, resulting in adverse consequences for teachers and sparking protests from parents and students–the sources of the strike are easily traceable and not attributable to teacher avarice or recklessness. Only an ideological or abstract view of the situation could characterize the strike as one of whimsy, or play-acting at class war, or reckless disregard. To the contrary, the long period of de-democratization of schools seems like precisely the type of thing that would lead those with real stakes in education policy to collectively assert their agency.

Disagreement May Be Splendid

A negotiation is an inherently adversarial process. Both sides will make claims, sides will be picked. Some personal rancor and anger is to be expected. But one unmitigated positive thing about this dispute is that is has forced intelligent people to truly engage the issue with actual stakes foreseeable. After years of superficial personality-focused coverage from the national media, what is actually happening to public education in Chicago has been forced into the national spotlight. Thinkers and activists have been pushed into a situation of baring their biases and understanding of the issue and confront errors of both thought and reasoning. We can look at that as an opportunity. If we decline to dig in our heels and really look at the material conditions, and say what we mean, we can give form to an often formless debate.

For many of us who have closely followed the transformation of Chicago’s public education over the last seventeen years or so, the major, alarming trend has been that control of our schools has been the loss of control by parents, students, and teachers, and concentrated in the hands of non-public school parents and non-educators. This would be acceptable of course if the result was that after seventeen years, the promised results were materializing–but the body of evidence supporting market-style reforms is not convincing, and certainly not convincing enough to justify the unraveling of a public institution by undemocratic means. Not demanded by or borne of the community, and not providing the promised results, that program operates instead as a form of unwanted coercion. The resultant outcry was not therefore unpredictable, or unreasonable.

* I scrapped the accountability piece from this article because the scholarship is so vast and the debate so technical; suffice it to say, as that CTU report shows, that teachers do not oppose increase accountability, even with a standardized test element; only too much weight placed on standardized testing to the detriment of peer-review and coaching and classroom instruction time. For a good but technical discussion of the problems with various quantitative models of individual teacher evaluation, see here. For the persistent error rates in using standardized tests to rate school and teacher effectiveness, see here. In any case, the important point is that teachers (and parents) do not oppose evaluation, just evaluations overly reliant on standardized testing.

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