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Chicago Fails Its Students

by Frederick M. Hess

Scott Walker, not Rahm Emanuel, offers a model for reform

‘They want to know if there’s anything more they can get,” said Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, explaining why her members voted to reject a tentative agreement the CTU had negotiated with Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. Two days later, on September 18, after taking a victory lap to show who calls the shots in the Windy City, the CTU accepted the generous deal.

The odds had seemed to favor a happier outcome. Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff, is a notorious fighter and an ardent champion of education reform. Chicago public-school teachers already earn, on average, $76,000 a year for working 190 days (15 of them student-free “professional” days). The city spends more than $13,000 per child a year and deems 99.7 percent of its teachers effective, yet its 674 schools graduate just 60 percent of their students, and fully 52 percent of fourth-graders score “below basic” in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. When the CTU opted in early September to strike rather than continue negotiating, it seemed a golden opportunity for Emanuel to prove that reform-minded Democrats can face down their union allies.

Yet, despite a strong opening hand, Emanuel wound up with precious little. The CTU’s initial request was dismissed as laughable in tough times (even by the New York Times editorial page), and the union was slammed for opposing Emanuel’s push to make growth in student test scores count for more than the state-required minimum when evaluating teachers. The new three-year contract calls for raises of 3 percent, 2 percent, and 2 percent in successive years, over and above regular seniority-based increases; retains seniority-based pay; and calls for hiring 600 new teachers, of whom one-half must be laid-off former teachers. It stipulates that teachers displaced because of school closures will keep their jobs, regardless of performance. On teacher evaluations, Emanuel managed only to get the CTU to comply with state law. Illinois requires that growth in student test scores account for at least 30 percent of evaluations; after fiercely insisting that the figure be 40 percent, Rahm accepted the minimum.

During his mayoral campaign, Emanuel had promised to extend Chicago’s school day (at five hours and 45 minutes, among the shortest in the country). He came up practically empty: A total of three schools extended their hours. By the strike’s final days, Emanuel was pleading with the courts to order the teachers back to school, arguing that state law prohibited the teachers from bargaining over “non-economic” issues — a point he had failed to raise earlier, and one that he ignored in making a raft of “non-economic” concessions (including a new provision prohibiting principals from “bullying” teachers).

The reviews were harsh. The Chicago Sun-Times declared: “Mayor Rahm Emanuel rolled the dice and lost.” Veteran education pundit Chester Finn Jr. observed, “[The deal] contains a handful of features from Rahm’s reform shopping list. But every one of them was weakened, diluted, deferred, or made very expensive for a city that can ill afford the added cost.” Veteran Chicago political strategist Don Rose told the New York Times, “This is the first issue that’s gone out of control for Rahm.” Andy Rotherham, an influential Democratic reformer and former Clinton White House education hand, observed that the CTU’s victory “put an end to the teachers’ unions’ political losing streak . . . and breath[ed] new life into dispirited union teachers.”

In a missive to its members, the CTU gloated: “Cities everywhere have been forced to adopt performance pay. Not here in Chicago! . . . We preserved our lanes and steps when the politicians and press predicted they were history. We held the line on healthcare costs.”

A more striking contrast to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s 2011 confrontation with public-employee unions would be hard to find. The contests in Wisconsin and Chicago starkly illuminate the difference between Republican and Democratic approaches to reform — and why the GOP model is the only one likely to deliver.

In 2011, Walker fought through a ferocious onslaught from public unions to pass Act 10, which dramatically narrowed the scope of collective bargaining. Henceforth, teachers could negotiate over wages and wage-related benefits but not such things as work rules and school start times. Act 10 freed districts from paralyzing concessions — on precisely those things, and others like them — that they had made, in many cases decades ago. Walker insulated school boards and superintendents from the pressure to kowtow to politically adept local unions that play a powerful role in electing board members.

Act 10 also required educators to start contributing more than a token amount toward their generous health-care and retirement benefits. Wisconsin’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that Walker’s pension provision alone will save schools $600 million over two years. These savings free up dollars to support classrooms and instruction. The Wauwatosa School District, for instance, had faced a $6.5 million shortfall and anticipated slashing 100 jobs, but Walker’s changes in pension and health contributions filled the hole.

Yet, in school-reform circles, Walker got little credit for any of this. The most startling development was how eager “education reform” Democrats were to defend the unions and attack Walker. U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan, generally lauded as a reformer, said, “For [Walker] to go in that direction after the leadership that the union had shown simply made no sense to me. It was nonsensical.” And Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, wrote, “How do we keep the political focus on providing a quality education for all students at a time when some Republican leaders appear to be primarily salivating at the chance to whack a significant political opponent?” Unlike Republicans, “we believe that teacher unions have a crucial voice . . . [and] we’re kind of creeped out by some of what we are seeing and hearing these days in the Heartland.”

Chicago proved the perfect test case for the Duncan-Williams view. Would a tough-minded Democratic mayor, offering teachers significant pay increases in a tough economy, be able to win big changes and demonstrate that Walker-style reform is unduly harsh? The answer was “No.”

And in a time of high unemployment and tight budgets, the Walker approach may find unexpected support: Witness Walker’s surprisingly easy win in June’s recall election. In September, Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance reported new survey results finding that 22 percent of the public believes that teachers’ unions have a generally positive effect on schools, and 35 percent believes that they have a negative effect. That represents a drop of seven percentage points from last year, when 29 percent had a positive view of unions. It’s no surprise that 53 percent of self-identified Republicans say unions have a negative impact on schools, but nearly one-quarter of self-identified Democrats now hold that view as well. The survey also suggests that public “trust in teachers” is weaker than legend has it, with just 42 percent of respondents saying it has “a lot of” trust or “complete” trust in them.

There are three big lessons here.

Treat the cause, not the symptoms. Even if Emanuel had prevailed, his victory would have been less far-reaching than Walker’s. The Democratic approach to reform requires district leaders to win piecemeal the things that Walker achieved in one fell swoop, and then to resist fierce, organized employee unions year after year as they seek new protections. Treating the cause is made doubly important by the many “evergreen” clauses in teacher contracts. These require that contract conditions remain in force — even after the contract expires — until both parties agree to a change. Of the 80 contract agreements on which the National Council on Teacher Quality provides data, more than one-third have evergreen provisions. Additionally, several states, including Missouri, Nebraska, Washington, and New York, have evergreen laws in their statutes governing labor relations.

Democratic reform costs more. Whereas Walker’s reforms saved dollars, Emanuel’s deal aggravated the financial troubles of Chicago’s schools. The contract is expected to cost the city an additional $295 million over four years, even as Chicago Public Schools anticipates a $1 billion deficit in 2015–16. Just days after the deal, an Education Week headline read, “In strike’s wake, Chicago faces budget questions.” The day after the Chicago strike ended, the New York Times ran a story headlined “Next School Crisis for Chicago: Pension Fund Is Running Dry.” One giant problem: The city has been paying $130 million a year to cover most of the pension contributions required of the teachers (a practice known as a “pick-up”). Walker achieved huge savings by requiring teachers to make their own contributions, but Emanuel didn’t push the issue. This despite his warning last spring that unfunded pension costs would eventually force cuts such that “average class size will jump to approximately 55 students.” (It should be noted that an overeager Wisconsin judge recently struck down Act 10’s employee-contribution requirement. The decision is under appeal, however, and appears likely to be reversed by a higher court.)

Conservative school reformers should not count too heavily on progressive allies. Mitt Romney and other Republicans were quick to back Emanuel, but the Democrats’ delicate alliance with teachers’ unions makes it hard for them not to score points with a politically important constituency when they see Republicans pushing aggressively. Walker got kneecapped or strategically ignored by progressive reformers in his time of need, with even typically fearless Democratic reformers such as Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee keeping a careful silence. Not a single prominent school-reform Democrat rose to Walker’s defense. Republican governors and reformers elsewhere can expect similar treatment when they go toe to toe with the unions.

Chicago’s sorry spectacle was a blow to the credibility of reform-minded Democrats and a reason to question whether a second Obama administration would be willing and able to deliver on the bold promises of its Race to the Top agenda. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has offered a more promising path.

– Mr. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the forthcoming book Cage-Busting Leadership (Harvard Education Press).

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