September 17, 2012

“THEY WANT TO know if there is anything more they can get.” That astonishing statement by the head of the Chicago Teachers Union tells you all you need to know about the reason for the continued strike of the city’s public schools. The no-end-in-sight teacher walkout is not about getting schools air-conditioned or lowering class size or any of the other platitudes that have been voiced at teacher rallies about wanting to improve education. It’s about the union thinking it can get “more” — and so what if the interests of tens of thousands of children are hurt in the process?

The strike by some 26,000 teachers and school staff entered its second week Monday after union delegates balked at voting on the tentative agreement that had been hammered out by its leadership and school officials. Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago local of the American Federation of Teachers who had just two days earlier hailed the tentative pact, on Sunday pronounced her membership “not happy.” Keep in mind that the delegates, who represent teachers at the city’s 681 schools, weren’t being asked to approve the contract — only to suspend the strike and return to classes while the rank and file prepare for a vote. The effect: Some 350,000 students — 84 percent of them from low-income families who receive free or reduced meals — lost one more day of precious school time.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was properly outraged at the union position and sought a court order ending the strike, on the grounds that it is illegal and presents “a clear and present danger” to the city and its children. “All of these children now face the all too real prospect of prolonged hunger, increased risk of violence, and disruption of critical special educational services, and all because of decisions not of their making, in which they did not have a voice or a vote,” the city’s motion read. A Cook County judge unfortunately declined a request for a same-day hearing, deferring the matter until Wednesday.

Chicago teachers — who already are among the nation’s highest paid with salaries that average $76,000 — ought to appreciate the city’s offer of raises that average out to 4.4 percent annually over four years. Clearly, though, the main sticking points are not economic but rather the common-sense reforms sought by Mr. Emanuel — more instruction time, empowering principals to hire the best teachers and evaluating teachers by how their students achieve. Thankfully, these remain largely intact in the draft agreement, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that talk by union representatives of wanting “more” actually means fewer of the critical changes that are needed to fix a school system that is unable to graduate 40 percent of its students.