My view:  To unions, Chicago is the next Wisconsin
Chicago school teachers picket outside Lane Tech College Prep High School on September 11, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois.
September 14th, 2012
04:36 AM ET

My view: To unions, Chicago is the next Wisconsin

Courtesy Illinois Policy InstituteBy Collin Hitt, Special to CNN.

Editor’s note: Collin Hitt is a senior fellow at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research foundation, and a Doctoral Academy Fellow at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform.

Shortly after President Obama took his historic oath of office, a small group of people back in his home state of Illinois gathered to negotiate a key issue of school reform. Before substantive discussions even began, a representative from the Chicago Teachers Union interjected: “For us,” she said, “this is about jobs.”

It was not about kids. It was not about results. It was not even about the issue at hand, charter schools. She said it was about jobs.

I was part of those negotiations, stunned at such frank selfishness. In the three years since, a national debate over education reform has been renewed. It’s become obvious that this stance was not unique to that moment, to that union or even to Illinois.

The battle over school reform is national, with support from both parties. The president has proposed reforms centered on better accountability for teachers and intense staffing changes at failing schools. Republicans have sought to give parents more school choice and more information.

But teachers unions have attempted to block those reforms at every turn. Exhibit A: this week’s strike by the Chicago Teachers Union.

At that meeting in 2009, we debated whether the number of charter schools in Chicago should be allowed to increase. The call seemed obvious. More than 30,000 kids were enrolled at Chicago charter schools, with another 15,000 or so on waiting lists. The schools were open to everybody but didn’t have enough seats. Research was piling up showing improved test scores and graduation rates for Chicago’s charter school students, who were almost all poor, black or Hispanic. But the unions opposed the expansion because charter schools didn’t have to hire union teachers. It didn’t matter that even Obama supported charter schools.

Soon thereafter, the Obama administration would steward a massive stimulus program called Race to the Top. The federal government offered more than $4 billion to cash-strapped states and school districts. States could receive money based on applications that promised to revamp teacher accountability systems and to intervene in failing schools. But in some states, teachers unions refused the reforms, scuttling the applications. In states that did receive new money, such as California, unions opposed aggressive school turnaround efforts that required the very worst schools to replace most of their staff. The result? Federal turnaround dollars were wasted in most of the California schools where they were spent.

The president’s top education reforms enjoyed bipartisan support. But the president was far more partisan on health care reform, which led to massive Republican victories in the midterm elections of 2010. This was especially pronounced at the state level, with a new wave of GOP governors and legislative majorities being swept into office.

The new Republican majorities had their own ideas for education reform. In Indiana, for example, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels unveiled a sweeping education reform agenda, emboldened by strengthened majorities in his legislature. He proposed the largest school voucher program in the country’s history. Charter schools were to be expanded to needy communities throughout the state. Schools would receive “A through F” ratings that every parent could understand. Students would be required to pass a reading test before being promoted from the third grade. And 21st-century technology would be used to customize education for the needs of individual children.

Teachers unions went crazy, convincing their small number of remaining Indiana legislative allies to flee the state, denying the legislature its quorum needed to take an official vote. The reforms languished for weeks before the refugee legislators returned home, under massive duress. The Daniels agenda passed, making Indiana – of all places – a national leader in the fight for education reform.

The most prominent new GOP governor was Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Little-noticed at the time of his election, Walker would soon become a national figure. He inherited a massive state deficit, impossible to balance without cuts in aid to local governments. But local school districts had no way of balancing their budgets without control of their labor costs. Walker, a former local government executive, knew that Wisconsin teachers unions would block local cost savings, necessitating tax hikes and cuts to student services. So Walker proposed restrictions on collective bargaining, giving school districts the freedom to make smart budget decisions. He also proposed an expansion of Milwaukee’s popular school voucher program, which had produced promising results and significant financial savings.

The curbs to collective bargaining were anathema to teachers unions. Wisconsin was home to many of the nation’s first government employee unions.

So the teacher unions became manic, nearly shutting down the statehouse in Madison with round-the-clock sit-ins. Walker’s Republican allies passed the reforms anyway. The unions then launched a statewide campaign to recall the new governor. National teacher unions flooded the state with money and staff. Walker survived the election.

Walker’s reforms are working. Districts have cut their fringe benefit costs by more than 15%, according to my colleague Bob Costrell in his forthcoming work for the George W. Bush Institute. Local property taxes have fallen, and the state budget is balanced. More kids in Milwaukee and Racine will enjoy school choice.

Appalled by the bitterness of his recall election, pundits and rival Democrats blamed Walker for the labor conflict in his state. Many blamed Republicans for their apathy toward government unions. But the recent teacher strike in Chicago shows that the battle in Wisconsin had less to do with Walker or his party and more to do with teachers unions and the desperate attempt to block all change.

On Monday, 30,000 Chicago teachers walked off the job, furious with the policies of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democratic hero and Obama’s former chief-of-staff. Emanuel aimed aggressively to extend Chicago’s elementary school day, which barely lasts five hours. He ordered teachers to work more. They asked for more money. He then offered a 16% raise to their average salary of $71,000. That wasn’t enough. So 350,000 students in Chicago are on the streets after a summer of stunning violence.

The Chicago Teachers Union wants the mayor to ignore a state law requiring that test scores be used to rate teacher performance, which ultimately would impact tenure. They want laid-off teachers to be hired back. Also, they’re seeking to end layoffs created if the district consolidates 100 of its half-empty schools across the city. It’s about jobs.

Across the country, there is a growing recognition of the need for change. Reforms of different kinds are all growing in popularity among voters of both parties. But unions are proudly standing in the way. And so it’s no coincidence that unions have seen their approval ratings fall.

For voters, apparently, it’s about the kids.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Collin Hitt.

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Filed under: Policy • Politics • Practice • teacher unions • Teachers • Voices
soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. real estate escazu costa rica

    You can definitely see your enthusiasm within the paintings you write. The sector hopes for more passionate writers like you who aren't afraid to say how they believe. All the time go after your heart.

    September 19, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  2. tucsand

    Let me see here, the unions don't want the teachers accountable for failing students? Exactly who is accountable then? Maybe a small majority of kids may actually have a learning disorder but not most of the kids. The teachers for this part of the protest should be held liable who else are you going to blame or why not blame the schools lunch that its not healthy enough causing learning problems or something stupider? Yet some of these teachers want a pay raise? Our country has a lot of teachers who do out perform expectations and they should get raises not the ones that just want to get by.

    September 16, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  3. Jim Wyman

    What Collin Hitt and his Republican buddies don't say is that their beloved charter schools make Chicago a two-tiered system. The parents who are THERE and want a good education for their children flock to the charter schools. But the rest of the poverty stricken parts of the city are left to languish. Heck, the children in the forgotten schools don't even have textbooks on the first day of school. These are the kids that Karen Lewis and the Chicago Teachers Union want to save.
    Hitt and his cronies mask a visceral hatred of public eduction behind their push for school reform. They should be ashamed!

    September 16, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  4. joe


    September 15, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  5. Sandy

    The whole Public Schools disaster makes me sick. My mom was a 1st generation American born in 1925. She began sc hool not speaking English. She only lasted a couple of days. My grandfather, who had come to the US in the 1800's,learned English, enlisted in the Army and was able to become a US citizen. 10yrs after coming to the States he went back to Italy and married my grandmother. The day my mom dropped out of 1st grade my grandpa declared " English only" My mom went on to get a BS from Depaul and was an accountant for years.

    She has always said the reason why the middle class came into existence was because the US offered free public education throuh high school and because of the formation of unions for the workers.

    Today our public schools have hugh classrooms,with many students who were born addicted to drugs, mostly single parent houeholds, the working poor, parents who don't speak English, not enough school supplies.The teachers also inherited a policy of passing students on to the next grade when the students were not ready for the next grade level.

    There are teachers that should be fired because they are can't teach. There the Teachers Union needs to crack down on and weed out teachers that do not meet the standards for being a teacher.

    I am totally against charter schools. They drain money from the Public School System. A person commented earlier about how Charter schools are run to have such good numbers. Also do not want to see families who send their children to private schools because they didn't want their children sent to integrated schools get tax credits.

    The mayor of Chicago decided he was going to make changes to the public schools. He made the school day longer but did not feel the teachers should be compensated. Also decided to chang the terms of the teachers contracts. When this did not fly, he went around bribing individual schools with money to accept his plan. He wanted to bust the Union. Shame on him. He has no one to blame but himself for this strike.

    I want to see successful programs like Project Headstart developed. The public schools didn't fall apart overnight. Charter schools which take $$ away from an already financially stapped system, implying the teachers are the reason why the students aren't passing when the conditions they work in are substandard, and the teachers don't care about their students they're only concerned about their pay will only continue to destroy public schools.

    Why doesn't someone ask the Mayor why he sends his children to the expensive private Lab School? When he moved back to Chicago his children went to a religous school untill he was elected. Then quietly he enrolled them in the Lab School. He can't use his relion to say that is why they are not in public school.

    September 14, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
  6. GrampaSez

    "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Collin Hitt."

    Well, and ME TOO. This was a GOOD article. On CNN, even.

    Good job.

    September 14, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  7. Tom Ward

    As a teacher at an independent school I do not belong to a union. My 1-year contract can be either renewed or just let to end every year. If they don't like me, they can say "see ya." I'm fine with that. However, I still side with the teachers union on these issues. It's not about "keeping bad teachers employed."

    1. Charter schools are not always better options. You falsely claim they are better when in actuality, they are more often worse. Smaller schools is good, yes, but not only are they selective in who completes their programs (kid is struggling? has a learning disability? push him out so you don't hurt the stats), but more test worse than better than public schools. Many are for for-proft. Do we really think schools should be profiting?

    Also, you won't find anyone educated on teacher evaluation that is for merit pay. It doesn't work. It can stifle collaboration. If I'm struggling to pay-off my student loans and have a chance for a certain alotment of bonus pay, am I going to share my awesome lessons with other teachers competing for that same alotment?

    Quit the teacher bashing. Just because kids are involved doesn't mean teachers do not have the right to look out for their financial and professional well-being.

    September 14, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Charlie L

      Well said, Tom.

      September 16, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Steve-Illinois

      I hope your dick isn't as limp as your argument! What a joke. 50% drop out rate and you believe teachers are sharing their "awesome lessons"? Does every kid have to drop out before you teachers see a problem? Almost every private, and charter school, in the country does better than the local public schools.

      September 17, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  8. CA momma

    I am old school and totally respect REAL TEACHERS. My 3 adults kids had THE BEST teachers who cared, fostered the love of learning, gently guided them through difficult studies, etc. Good teachers are gems and a rarity today. UNIONS are more concerned about protecting teachers than making sure teachers DO THEIR BEST. Chicago teacher exemplify the WORST of teachers, "I want my job vs. I want to teach". Teaching is a calling NOT just a job. I volunteered in a public school for many years grades k-5. I worked primarily with kids who were behind in their studies or non-English speaking kids (LOTS of those in LA). I saw great teachers, and unfortunately saw some teachers who had NO BUSINESS in the classroom (I wanted to report some!). Yet year after year, the bad teachers returned to do more harm than good...they were tenured. FOR SURE unions have a purpose but when union demands are not in line with their member's performance...then someone has to draw the line. I hope Rahm succeeds and I hope his success sends a warning to ALL TEACHERS unions. TEACHING like HEALING is not just a job....either do it well or leave (or in the case of teachers, GET FIRED!)

    September 14, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • phydo

      My wife is a teacher. She has a Masters degree and 10 years of experience, and makes $42,000 a year. In each of the last two contract renewals, she has been compelled to accept a contract involving a 2% pay cut. In the last contract, she was compelled to make substantial concessions in health care and retirement benefits. Make no mistake about it, my wife entered teaching because it was a calling. Make no mistake about it, this time it is about jobs.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
      • Jane

        WI teachers have been taking pay cuts for 10 years, but it's not just about that. How is a class size of 40 students or having to teach extra classes (for the same pay) helping the students? As the work load increases, we have to cut back on what we assign so that we can survive the grading. I don't know one teacher who does not take work home or catch up on the weekends. All of these conditions do not help the student get a better education. Say what you will about unions but they are the only ones fighting for better work conditions that benefit teachers and students.

        September 14, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
      • Alex

        That sounds bad phydo, but where do you live? That makes a huge difference, considering your wife makes more than 50K per full working year, which would be decent pay in some parts of the country.

        Now on to the topic at hand: Chicago teachers are not facing a pay cut but are refusing roughly a 4% pay raise for the next 4 years. That's a huge difference. In my town, the cost per pupil is currently $13,800. I pay over 6K / year in property taxes for a house worth about 250K for reference. We're having similar issues in my town but it's over the pension system more than raises (which our teachers are getting because of a declining school population). I think I pay enough, especially with no children.

        September 14, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
      • T.C.

        And in what state does your wife teach? Clearly it is not Illinois. That salary seems way too low given the amount of time spent teaching as well as having a Masters. If the teachers here (IL) were making that small amount with similar credentials, they would garner much more support and sympathy. However, all I see here is selfishness and greed.

        September 16, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
    • Jennifer

      I am a 14 year Chicago Public School teacher who has been rated "Superior" throughout my career in the system. That said, I was sorry to read CA Mom's story stating that we "exemplify the worst of teachers". That's quite a generalization to make about 20,000 incredibly hard working people.
      Of course there are bad teachers out there and there should be a better system in place to get rid of them. I fully agree as I have worked with a few. For the rest of us that are actually quite good at what we do, to base such a high percentage of our annual evaluations on students' test scores is ludicrous. Due to this process, my students will spend approximately 20-22 of our 180 school days taking standardized tests of one kind or another this school year (but let’s not teach to the test). These scores will somehow aid my principal in evaluating how well I am doing so much so as to base 45% of my evaluation on these scores. I should be held accountable for my students' progress. There is no doubt. But I question that this is the best way to do it. I don't go home with my students, so I cannot be sure they are getting a good night sleep, didn't stay up playing video games until 1:00, got a good solid meal at the end and beginning of their day, didn’t hear that horrible argument that mom and dad had, etc. I also don’t have any control in how many days a child misses or arrives to school tardy. There are so many factors that can make or break a student’s test score. Those factors I shouldn’t be held accountable for. I don’t have the answers, and neither does the CPS Board of Education.
      I am proud to be a part of The CTU’s fight for what is right concerning both the students and teachers of Chicago Public Schools.

      September 14, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
      • Pete

        I am one of those former students. I am a product of the Chicago Public School system. From headstart (pre-school) through Th. Roosevelt H.S., I had the pleasure of learning from some of the most inspiring, interesting teachers ever. There were SOME teachers who did everything and anything to impart knowledge of the subject matter unto their students. I am a grocery store manager now. And looking back, considering most of the teachers I had, If they were my employees, I would fire them on the spot. I remember the less than stellar students being marginalized as they were seated in the back of the class. The teachers didn't even require them to do the work and just give them passing grades to move them on to the next "assembly-line" fellow teacher to be passed up and out of the school system. Just collecting their paychecks along the way. I know what those toilet schools are like first-hand. FIRE THEM ALL AND START AGAIN FROM SCRATCH–>WITHOUT THE CRIMINAL UNIONS TO SHIELD THE BUMS IN THE SYSTEM !!!

        September 14, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
      • Steve-Illinois

        Rated "Superior" when a principle shows up maybe once a year to observe your class, with prior notification, of course. When's the last time you went to your union about a poor teacher? If good teachers don't stand up against the poor teachers, you deserve whatever generalization you get!

        September 17, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
      • Steve-Illinois

        By the way, how are your math skills? Put these bogus "sustainable" pension plans to pencil and paper, then pretend you can't do 8th grade math when you realize the return is mathematically impossible! Keep your "superior" rating, it wouldn't get you 6 months in the private sector.

        September 17, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  9. Floyd from Illinois

    For a doctoral candidate in 'education reform', whatever kind of academic specialty that is, this Hitt fellow seems astonishingly clueless about the purpose of unions in general and teachers' unions in particular.

    September 14, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Chris

      Exactly, Floyd. He really makes himself out to seem pretty clueless. Both about unions and what it takes to educate anybody about anything.

      September 14, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  10. Name*eilatan cajazz

    The real way to make changes to public school education would be to do some of the following;
    1.Require mandatory entrance testing when children are scheduled to begin kindergarten((If the children are lacking the skills deny them entry until they have them.
    2 Place students in tracks according to their academic abilities.
    3Bring back corporal punishment so that children will learn there is a reaction for every decision made.
    4 Place only the brightest children in college readiness programs.
    5 Special needs children need to ne educated in classes with teachers who want to work with them so they can meet with success.

    September 14, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • MOMwithAbrain

      Collin, you missed the evaluations of teachers. As a tea party conservative, I actually stand WITH the teachers on this issue. Why would I trust Obama to test my kids when his own former controversial SAFE SCHOOL CZAR said he wants to incorporate school climate in the Common Core Standards. Whats in the standards has to be tested. That means testing the child's values instead of their academic knowledge.
      This centralization of education is not embraced by all Republicans....just the RINO Jeb Bush Republicans.
      The same ones who brought us NCLB and watched as that dumbed down education!!
      The entire ObamaCore agenda is based on Social Justice, not academic excellence.

      The unions spout Marxist ideology which means that they have no credibility among Republicans. However Conservatives know the ObamaCore agenda = Social Justice dumbed down education to follow. The teachers will lose, but let's face it, ultimately the kids lose again.
      I'm SO glad we pay tuition to a parochial school and avoid the dumbed down public school education!

      September 14, 2012 at 9:30 am |
      • Sirius

        Um, I find it difficult to believe, but you, my Tea Party friend, have your facts incorrect.

        The Common Core standards have nothing to do with Obama. They were initiated by the National Governors Association, most of whom at the time were Republicans. The reason it was initiated by the states was for the exact reason you (incorrectly) cite: by decentralizing the initiative, it would have a better chance of surviving, and actually encourages collaboration between different educators across the country, rather than receiving orders from the central government, which would change every few years.

        I'm sure you will check your facts and never use your erroneous attack against Obama again.

        (Yeah, right)

        September 14, 2012 at 9:22 pm |