How the Teachers’ Union Robbed Chicago, Again

by Joshua Culling

During the Democratic National Convention I wrote about a clear contrast between the policies of Illinois natives Barack Obama and Pat Quinn, and their Wisconsin counterparts, Paul Ryan and Scott Walker. We now have another anti-reformer to add to the Illinois column: Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The seven-school-day Chicago Teachers Union strike was extensively covered across the country, as teachers walked out of the classroom after rejecting a deal with the city that would have paid them 16 percent more over four years, coupled with a slightly greater weighting of student performance in teacher evaluations. So far as I could tell, the union’s choice was overwhelmingly portrayed in a negative light, with even the New York Times editorial page calling the strike “unnecessary,” positing that union president Karen Lewis “seem[ed] to be basking in the power of having shut down the school system.”

It was an opportunity for Emanuel to take a politically popular stand against union largesse while winning serious reforms for his city’s beleaguered budget. It is sad but true that when Democratic leaders push back against unions, they are applauded for moderation, or at least left alone by observers in the media. In 2011, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature curbed collective bargaining to little fanfare. At the same time, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker pursued a similar path in Madison, but faced thousands of union protesters at his doorstep and the wrath of the New York Times and MSNBC.

But where Walker stood tall against unrelenting pressure, Emanuel got rolled by the CTU. Their “concessions” are laughable: Student achievement now accounts for 30 percent of teacher evaluations, but the State of Illinois already requires 25 percent. Teachers will receive raises of 3 percent, 2 percent, and 2 percent over the next three years, on top of automatic step-and-lane pay hikes that are already set in stone. And the school day will be longer, but teachers won’t be teaching any more hours; the city is required to hire hundreds more teachers to fill out the longer school days. All told, the deal will cost Chicago hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years. This is a resounding defeat for Rahm Emanuel and the education reform movement.

For his next act, Chicago’s mayor will need to balance a city budget that is $369 million in the red. I have no confidence that he will do this via cost savings and sensible spending reductions. He just punted on his best opportunity to do so, with national popular opinion against rampant union greed. Instead, Rahm is going to raise taxes and perpetuate Chicago’s pathetic status quo.

Meanwhile, it’s a short train ride to Milwaukee, which avoided teacher layoffs and saw $22 million in cost savings directly attributable to Scott Walker’s modest reforms to teacher compensation. Local taxes won’t be on the rise in Milwaukee or in any of Wisconsin’s major municipalities for some time. That’s the difference a backbone makes.