Chicago's teacher strike may turn out to be the most important one in a generation, as teachers stand up to a corporate-backed education reform regime that stresses testing and firing teachers as a form of "accountability" while continuing to refuse to invest real money in making educational opportunities equal for all students.
The so-called education reform movement wants high-stakes tests that students take yearly to be used to evaluate teachers and weed out the "bad" ones, and pushes money into charter schools that are privately owned and don't have union teachers. Under the guise of "accountability" for teachers and schools, reformers put taxpayer dollars into the hands of private investors despite the charter schools' negligible results when it comes to actually improving education. The movement has been particularly pernicious because it's crept inside the heart of the Democratic party and taken hold of politicians and commentators who profess to be on the side of working people, but end up bashing teachers' unions.
As Molly Ball at the Atlantic wrote last week, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the chairman of the Democratic National Convention, spoke during the convention at a movie screening hosted by the face of the pro-charter-school movement, Michelle Rhee. "Another Democratic star, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, spoke at the cocktails-and-canapes reception afterward," Ball noted. "Across the country, Democratic officials from governors like Colorado's John Hickenlooper to former President Clinton -- buoyed by the well-funded encouragement of the hedge-fund bigwigs behind much of the charter-school movement -- are shifting the party's consensus away from the union-dictated terms to which it has long been loyal."
And of course, Chicago's teachers are facing down Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former White House Chief of Staff for Barack Obama.
It's not just politicians falling for the rhetoric of the union-busters when it comes to teachers. Few would dare to demonize police or firefighters' unions the same way they have teachers, who are mostly women, working for decent middle-class wages but hardly getting rich, and in Chicago often working in horrific conditions, with huge classes and in some cases no air conditioning. Yet as the teachers hit the streets and Chicagoans declared support, supposedly liberal pundits echoed far-right talking points about teacher salaries and budget cuts, implied that teachers were hurting students by standing up for their rights and for better conditions in the schools, and argued that not supporting the union was evidence of their independent thought—not their susceptibility to a well-funded message machine or their general contempt for public school teachers.
Here's five of the most egregious examples of otherwise smart liberal pundits repeating the talking points of the corporate education reform movement.
1. Nicholas Kristof. The New York Times' columnist is celebrated for his trips into Global South countries to report heartwrenching stories of women; he's lauded as an activist and a human rights advocate. But when it comes to women and workers fighting for their rights closer to home, he seems to have a big blind spot. He tweeted:
Re the Chicago teacher strike, my take: teachers should have greater pay but more accountability & less job security.
Kristof doesn't seem to have a great grasp on the facts—arguing for "bottom-third" teachers not to have job protections, then suggesting that we should listen to teachers for ideas on how to weed out that bottom third. "In response to your questions, yes, 1 yr value added isn't adequate to judge a teacher. 3 yrs data better. Some subjects not measurable," he admits, but continues to argue for high-stakes testing as "accountability."
New York teacher Brian Jones pointed out, in the Times as well, that the "carrot-and-stick" routine Kristof implicitly endorses here to try to make teachers perform won't work. "Any experienced classroom teacher will tell you that punishments and rewards at best encourage obedience, but will not promote creativity, intelligence or initiative." Instead, he noted, "By confronting the mayor and standing up for things teachers and students desperately need to actually improve our schools, the union is likely to do more to retain the best teachers, and to help more teachers to do their best, than any merit pay scheme ever could."
Kristof's admission that teachers should be well-paid would be more welcome if it didn't come along with the call for more testing—as we know, high-stakes testing doesn't lead to better teaching, it leads to lousy learning and in some cases, cheating.
Finally, Kristof wraps up with some concern-trolling intended to appease both sides, saying that the real losers are poor kids who attend Chicago's public schools. Of course, if Kristof had any interest in listening to activists, many of them women of color, he'd understand that that's why the teachers are striking in the first place.
2. Joe Nocera. Nocera, also at the Times, tries to soften his critique of the teachers' strike by throwing them a bone midway through his column. "As regular readers know, I have been somewhat skeptical of the reform movement. For those disadvantaged students who get into a good charter school or land in a program that can help them succeed, that's wonderful. In the grand scheme of things, though, the number of students who get that kind of attention is small."
Great, Joe. The reform movement is full of it. But where you got your next sentence is completely unclear. "On the other hand, the status quo, which is what the Chicago teachers want, is clearly unacceptable."
Here's a deep-seated bit of ideology that's really worth unpacking for a second. This is the image of unions in the American psyche these days. Most people think of them as little-c conservative institutions holding on to a dead past, trying to protect what their members have against a sweeping tide of change.
It's wrong, and the CTU couldn't be a better example of just how wrong it is. Karen Lewis and her union are the ones actually fighting for reforms in the schools, starting with things we know work: smaller class sizes, well-rounded curriculum, support for teachers and school staff. They might legally only be allowed to strike over salary and benefits, but they've been out there at every turn arguing for change, not the status quo.
Nocera seems to brush off the points the teachers make about poverty, about the unfairness of statewide tests that hold teachers in schools where families are barely staying afloat to the same standard as white kids in suburban well-funded districts. Just lengthening the school day won't help if you have overfull classes stuffed with kids with empty stomachs and no air conditioning—those aren't conditions for learning.
Nocera might want to ask some people who would know what works. But those would be teachers, and no one seems to actually care what they think.
3. Dylan Matthews. Over at Wonkblog, founded and headed by liberal darling Ezra Klein, Dylan Matthews went two for two, first arguing that teachers' strikes hurt student achievement (measured, of course, by those magical test scores) and then churning out a charming little piece arguing over teachers' wages.
Doug Henwood at Left Business Observer provides an expansive response to Matthews' "attempted heart-tugging" over the damage being done to students. The studies Matthews quotes, Henwood points out, are from Canada and Belgium, and one of them was a six-month long work stoppage. He quotes Michèle Belot and Dinand Webbink, the authors of that study, who are far less interested in fearmongering than Matthews is:
Strikes do not occur randomly and are likely to be correlated with other factors affecting educational outcomes, thereby compromising the identification of a causal effect. A before–after comparison might be biased by other unobserved factors that changed after the strikes.
And then on to the money. He qualifies his eight paragraphs of numbers by admitting that none of his calculations have anything to do with whether teachers deserve to make $56,000 or $71,000 or any other possible rate of pay, he's essentially done the right's work for them: insisting that the teachers make the high end of a possible range of pay opens them up to the charge being flung around that they're greedy.
It also contributes to the myth that the strike is only about pay, when in fact, like most labor actions, it's about so much more than that, from class sizes to standardized tests to the lack of air conditioning in schools and the persistent, grinding poverty of so many of Chicago's public school students. But as Phil Cantor, a striking teacher, told Democracy Now!, due to neoliberal reforms pushed through by Emanuel and others, the teachers are only legally allowed to strike over pay and benefits, but they get blamed in the press for being concerned about their pay. It's almost like the politicians planned it that way to make teachers look greedy and selfish.
As Micah Uetricht notes at Jacobin, CTU president Karen Lewis was asked what the primary issues were that caused the union overwhelmingly to vote to strike. "She replied that all issues, from compensation to smaller class sizes to the increasing reliance upon standardized testing to understaffing of positions dealing with 'wraparound services,' like social workers and clinicians, were causing the impasse."
By focusing solely on the numbers, Matthews contributes to the idea that a teachers' strike is all about the money, and by insisting repeatedly on the higher number, he contributes to the divide-and-conquer tactics the right has gotten so good at using to split the working class and attack unions.
4. Matt Yglesias. Yglesias' contribution, at Slate, to the teachers' union-busting is one of the most unintentionally ironic things I've ever seen. Just a year and a couple of months out from the biggest labor uprising in decades over the rights of public employees, Yglesias is actually arguing that teachers' unions suck because they are public employees.
Really. Check this out:
If CTU members get what they want, that's not coming out of the pocket of "the bosses" it's coming out of the pocket of the people who work at charter schools or the people who pay taxes in Chicago.
So if the teachers get a better pay rate, it's coming out of the pockets of...other teachers? It escapes Yglesias, of course, because he's firmly bought in to the myth that the teachers just want more money. But one of the things the CTU wants is fewer charter schools, and one of the reasons they want fewer charter schools is that the teachers in them don't have access to the protections of collective bargaining.
As for the idea that taxpayers should hate teachers because they pay their salaries, I don't even know where to begin. Yglesias is responding to a brief post by Doug Henwood in which Henwood compares teachers to blue-collar workers like autoworkers or janitors, and his argument is that people don't mind janitors striking because it doesn't come out of their bottom line. Except janitors are also employed by public entities sometimes, but whatever, liberal pundits don't want to get too close to those types of workers anyway. (In Chicago the janitors are refusing to cross the teachers' picket lines, standing in solidarity.)
Public workers, of course, were the target of lots of attacks last year, but by Republicans (mostly). The difference between Scott Walker and Rahm Emanuel on this issue is quite slim, actually. Part of the education reform plan is, as Nicholas Kristof points out above, to take away job security from the teachers deemed "bad" by the powers that be. Walker's attacks, like Emanuel's, disproportionately fell on a part of the workforce dominated by women and people of color. CTU president Karen Lewis attended Dartmouth, the only woman of color in her class, and has put race and gender at the center of her analysis.
Even when attacking public employee unions, Scott Walker and his ilk avoid fights with the police and firefighters. Only John Kasich in Ohio had the guts to go after cops and firefighters, and unsurprisingly his bill was defeated. (It's also worth noting that in Chicago, the police union is also standing with the teachers.) There is simply no comparable demonization of these public workers to what happens constantly with teachers. Coincidentally, there is no way for hedge funders to get rich pocketing tax dollars by creating charter police departments or fire departments. Though now that I've said it, maybe they'll start.
The main difference seems to be, on this question, that Emanuel is a Democrat and so belongs to a party that at least feels the need to pay lip service to teachers and their unions—though not long ago an Obama campaign manager bragged about the president's relationship with teachers unions being "anything but cozy."
Oh, and that this is a strike, and apparently liberal pundits prefer it when unions lie down and wait for the abuses to come. Yet as Matthew Stoller pointed out last year, the lack of strikes has led most people to consider unions ineffective and useless, creating the same kind of thinking that Cohen displays here. "People might only like unions when they see strikes, otherwise all they hear about is backroom negotiations," Stoller argued. "Perhaps effectively striking is actually the way to force people to ask questions about what kind of country they want to live in."
If Yglesias is seriously worried about the taxpayers in Chicago getting screwed over by public school funding, perhaps he could start here: according to Bill Barclay at Dissent, "In revealing contrast, nine selective-enrollment high schools (charter and magnet) that make up 1 percent of the total number of schools got 24 percent of the money spent on school construction projects."
That sounds like misallocation of taxpayer funds to me.
As Henwood replied, "The 'what about the taxpayers?' lament is straight out of the Reagan playbook—from which it's clear that a lot of Democrats are taking instruction these days."
5. Jacob Weisberg. It might be easier to understand Yglesias' position on striking teachers when you look at his boss's tweets on the subject. Weisberg, editor-in-chief at Slate, is the most gleeful yet:
Rooting for Rahm to make the Chicago Teachers' Union sorry for this inexcusable strike. Students in class fewest hours of any big city.
It's disconcerting to see such clear desire for punishment of working people (by a multimillionaire politician whose best friends are on Wall Street no less). But Weisberg should know, right? He's an alum of Chicago's schools—or rather, one of Chicago's illustrious private schools. The Francis W. Parker school's Web site stresses its "...small class size and interdisciplinary approach to teaching result in a challenging and meaningful educational experience."
Now, of course it's possible for someone to have attended a private school and still have solidarity with striking workers, or to have ideas worth listening to about how schools should be run. But when your only answer to the questions raised by a teachers strike is:
Teachers, fire & police shouldn't have right to strike. It's blackmail power over essential services. They have many other protections.
At least Weisberg is consistent here in saying that teachers are just as essential as police and firefighters. But he then argues that none of them should have the right to strike. It's thinking like this that led to the assaults on public workers' collective bargaining rights that flared up last year but haven't really gone away. It's also the same thinking that leads to Republicans arguing that public sector jobs aren't real jobs, that they're simply government waste. Or that leads to a Democratic mayor cutting wages for all public workers (again, including police and firefighters) to minimum wage.
Striking is the strongest weapon that working people have to fight for their own rights. The bar in Chicago was raised to a height that politicians thought the union would never be able to scale, cutting back what the teachers were legally able to strike over and requiring a larger percentage of the union to vote than they thought possible. But they underestimated the solidarity and determination of the teachers' union, and now Democrats are making Republican-sounding arguments while insisting that they don't hate all unions or all teachers, it's just that this time is different.
"What about the children," what Weisberg essentially asks here, is a question being used across the board against the unions. We are supposed to believe that wealthy charter school backers and Wall Street Democrats, along with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, the architects of No Child Left Behind, and so many other conservatives, really have the best interests of children at heart instead of the people who willingly take on a thankless career in the nation's poorest schools.
As economist Dean Baker pointed out, "The main determinants of childrens' performance continues to be the socioeconomic conditions of their parents. Those unwilling to take the steps necessary to address the latter (e.g. promote full employment) are the ones who do not care about our children."