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School strikes of choice – in Chicago and Tacoma

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Sep. 17, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
September 17, 2012 6:13 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

Chicago’s teachers – now into the second week of a citywide strike – don’t need a new contract as much as they need a new union.

Tacomans may get get a sense of déjà vu watching Chicago’s catastrophe unfold. Last year’s strike in Tacoma threw the city’s students – most of whom are poor – out of school for eight days.

The governor had to intervene to end the walkout. When it was over, the Tacoma Education Association’s modest contract gains hardly justified the damage done by the strike. The TEA could have kept the schools open while it continued to bargain.

Expand Tacoma’s trauma by an order of magnitude and you get Chicago.

There, more than 350,000 students are shut out of school. More than 80 percent of them are from impoverished homes. As in Tacoma, working parents have had to make emergency child-care arrangements and seen their jobs disrupted.

The Chicago school district estimates that 50,000 schoolchildren qualify for some form of special education; some have profound disabilities. For many of them, school is a life raft.

Chicago’s walkout – like Tacoma’s – is a strike of choice.

The district says it has offered pay raises that average 17.9 percent over four years. The union’s top leadership had actually settled with the district on the remaining issues, but internal politics have so far delayed ratification.

So the union is now striking over an offer its own president has signed off on. At the moment, more than a third of a million Chicago children are out of school over an intramural dispute within the labor organization.

In Chicago, the mayor – Rahm Emanuel – effectively calls the shots in the school system. His aggressive style helped provoke the teachers.

But much of the argument revolves around the use of test scores to evaluate teachers and performance-driven staffing decisions. These are at the heart of the education reforms championed by Barack Obama and other critics of American public education.

This kind of accountability is anathema to traditional trade unions, which historically have protected their members by insisting that seniority be the paramount factor in employment decisions. But Americans are increasingly fed up with the trade union model when it comes to their schools. It serves adults, not students.

Some teacher unions get this. In Boston, for example, the union and the district have just negotiated a contract that emphasizes student achievement in teacher evaluation. It took two years, and the union was dogged in pursuing safeguards for good teachers, but it ended without an explosion.

“Neither side let their frustrations spill onto the students of the Boston Public Schools,” said Mayor Thomas Menino. It’s too bad the same can’t be said for Chicago – or Tacoma.

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