The Chicago Teachers Union strike could have a national impact in at least two key ways. It could reshape an increasingly confrontational relationship between elected officials and public employees. And the walkout could alter education policy, either disrupting the movement toward charter schools and test-based teacher evaluations – or ending concerted opposition to these programs.
According to Kate Brofenbrenner, director of labor education research at the Cornell University school of Industrial and Labor Relations, “The reason that the teachers are fighting back so strongly is because of what happened in Wisconsin.” Badger state governor Scott Walker kneecapped bargaining rights of teachers and most other public employees (except police and firefighters who supported Walker’s campaign).
CTU occasionally alludes to Walker, like in its plan to hold a “Wisconsin style” rally tomorrow. Unlike Walker, though, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not out to end bargaining rights. But the Walker law and ensuing backlash galvanized public employees to see management disputes as more existential threats.
The last time Chicago teachers and other public employees staged regular strikes was the 1980s, Brofenbrenner notes, “Because there was a big attack then on how much should be spent on the public sector. Now the attack is on whether there should be a public sector at all.”
The strike is also a national litmus test on the latest education policies as outlined by officials such as former Washington, D.C. school head Michelle Rhee and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former head of CPS. “Teachers have been very frustrated for the last several years,” says Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Washington, D.C. Century Foundation.
The conventional wisdom has weighed in favor of test-based teacher evaluations, despite a lack of evidence on their effectiveness.
Editorials from the New York Times and Washington Post this week backed Emanuel and CPS. Both President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney talk about the need for teacher accountability. And, as CPS has pointed out, teachers in Boston reached a tentative deal Wednesday that includes a test-based teacher evaluation system.
“Teachers are used to dealing with a whole new set of education fads every few years,” Kahlenberg says. “Right now, it is charter schools and performance pay for teachers.”
Can the strike disrupt these trends? Kahlenberg points out that CTU has tried to change the narrative by talking about issues beyond teacher evaluation, such as class size and the fact that the vast majority of their students are low-income.
There is some evidence CTU messaging is hitting home with some audiences. While the national political class sides with Emanuel, a poll by We Ask America released yesterday found that 56 percent of Chicago households approve of the strike, including 66 percent of CPS parents.