The Chicago Teachers Union Versus the New Democrats, the Same Old Republicans, and the Corporate Media

 After nearly twenty years of ‘reform’, the schools of Chicago remain among the lowest performing in the nation.

A funny thing happened on the way to labor’s extinction: the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) staged one of the most daring and important strikes in recent memory. As Chris Hedges put it during his Democracy Now interview last week  “the teachers’ strike in Chicago is arguably one of the most important labor actions in probably decades.”  And in the midst of this struggle, most of the corporate media around the country have decried the horrible greedy teachers from their editorial pages and assured readers that they were on the side of the children rather than the teachers.

If they had checked with the public in Chicago they would have found that the parents and most of the public sided with the teachers even while Obama’s former chief of staff and central fundraiser, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, was getting the solid backing of Paul Ryan.  Yes, that Paul Ryan.  Indeed, a Chicago Tribune poll taken last week showed that the hated teachers’ union had the support of 47% of the public while the mayor was backed by 39% of residents.

This is certainly due to the fact that the CTU has spent the last several years doing community work with the parents in some of Chicago’s most blighted schools and pointed out that the children there need much more than just standardized testing to improve their lot.  Hence the teachers are pushing for things like air conditioning in classrooms, more access to social workers, teachers of art and languages in every school, libraries, and other things that would deal with the environment in which children learn in a far more holistic fashion.

Emanuel, the man who as Obama’s chief of staff once famously gave a group of progressives pushing the public option in healthcare the “double bird,” has characteristically played the bully.  The man who helped the Clinton Administration ram through NAFTA followed his tried and true playbook—demonize and belittle your opponent, work the inside game, and jam through your policy over all objections, principled or not.  But this time he has met his match in the CTU.

What the Strike Is Really About

But this strike is not fundamentally about personality conflicts as some have reported; nor is it really even about money.  The real stakes are much higher and they have national significance.  As Pauline Lipman pointed out in the New York Times :

 Chicago was the birthplace of neoliberal education reform — high-stakes testing, closing neighborhood public schools and turning them over to private operators, expanding charter schools, running schools like businesses, test-based teacher evaluation, prescribed standards, and mayoral control of schools.

Over the past 15 years, these policies were promoted nationally by corporate philanthropies, conservative think tanks, and recently by billionaire-initiated education reform organizations like Stand for Children and Education Reform Now. The Chicago agenda became the official national agenda when President Obama appointed Chicago’s chief executive of schools, Arne Duncan, to be his Secretary of Education.

Educators have fought a national corporate agenda for 15 years and have had enough . . .

But more deeply, at the school level, there is plenty of research showing that these policies have reduced the curriculum to what is tested, demoralized teachers and degraded the teaching force, and left parents and students with no public school options in their communities.

These are not education policies, but rather business policies applied to schools with business goals: promoting top-down management, weakening unions, shifting the purpose of education to labor force preparation, and opening up the $2 trillion dollar global education sector to the market. 

Despite efforts by educators, researchers, and parents nationally to contest this agenda, it has become the new status quo. This is why Chicago teachers are on strike.

And the reason why Paul Ryan jumped to Emanuel’s side was not just to politically embarrass Obama, it was because the sad truth is that the new bipartisan hegemony on education is neo-liberalism, with the only real difference being that the Democrats still have a minority wing of the party that doesn’t want to simply union bust and open the floodgates to privatization. 

Rahm Emanuel: The Scott Walker of the New Democrats?

What the Chicago teachers strike does is underline this inconvenient truth in the midst of a Presidential election, right when the Democrats want the remnants of labor to fill their phone banks in crucial swing states.  Thus Rahm’s Scott Walker imitation is awkwardly timed.  Still the mayor is a key figure and symbol of what most ails the party that used to be the friend of the working person.  As Hedges again notes in his interview, this is all happening:

as we rapidly reconfigure this country into a neofeudalistic society, an oligarchic state. And it is, I think, emblematic that the reptilian heart of the Democratic Party is sort of represented by the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, who has, like—as far as I can tell, all major Democratic figures turn their backs on the union activity and the struggle on the part of the Chicago teachers, including, of course, Barack Obama. And it really boils down to the fact that we spend $600-some billion a year, the federal government, on education, and the corporations want it. That’s what’s happening. And that comes through charter schools. It comes through standardized testing. And it comes through breaking teachers’ unions and essentially hiring temp workers, people who have very little skills. This is what Teach for America is about. They teach by rote, and they learn nothing. There’s no career. I mean, there’s quite a difference between teaching people what to think and teaching people how to think. And corporate forces want to teach people what to think. It’s a kind of classism. People get slotted. It’s vocational. And so, I see what’s happening in Chicago as, you know, one of the kind of seminal uprisings of our age. And if they don’t succeed, we’re all in deep trouble. 

But, if all you did was read, listen to/or watch the mainstream, corporate media, Hedges’ analysis may as well be from the moon because all the right-thinking liberal and moderate elites from Kristof to Brooks to Freidman to the editorial page of the New York Times are in the tank for pretty much every neoliberal reform in the book, particularly when it comes to education.  That doesn’t, however, prevent them from being full of pious hot air.  Fortunately, there are a growing number of voices of sanity chirping around the edges of the official bi-partisan neoliberal party line.

What You Won’t Hear from the Corporate Media’s Editorial Pages or Hollywood

One of the best voices in this regard has been Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post who has sharply opined during the Chicago Teachers’ strike that her own paper’s editorial page is dead wrong on corporate education reform as are many other prominent voices such as the New York Times editorial page and the whole new Democrat crew and their corporate pals:

The Times can say that using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers is a sensible policy and Obama can say it and Education Secretary Arne Duncan can say it and Emanuel can say it and so can Bill Gates (who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to develop it) and governors and mayors from both parties, and heck, anybody can go ahead and shout it out as loud as they can.

It doesn’t make it true.

Can all these very smart people be wrong? Yes, according to many experts on assessment who have done extensive research on the subject.

These experts have said over and over and over that the method by which test scores are factored into an evaluation of how effective a teacher is are dramatically unreliable and unfair. Some say it will destroy the teaching profession because it will identify effective teachers as ineffective and ineffective teachers as effective. Some bad teachers will be fired but some good ones will too. Others will leave in disgust.

Strauss goes on to cite the fact that the current assault on the teaching profession is driving talented young people away from the profession.  Her discussion of this is backed up by the most recent numbers that show that almost half of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years.  In California, we also have seen a huge decline in the number of young people who want to go into education in the first place. Go figure. Who wants to be pubic enemy number one while making less money than most other folks with the same level of education?

Accountability, Corporate Reform Style

courtesy sdea facebook album

What’s worse is that the siren call of data-driven decision-making seems only to draw politicians’ attention when it comes from folks with big money who want to break unions and impose untested policies on the American education system as if it was one big Petri dish for self-appointed billionaire experts.  The problem is that many actual researchers see the current shock doctrine approach to education reform as reckless.

In Chicago scores of researchers from 16 universities in the metropolitan area signed a letter asserting that:

As university professors and researchers who specialize in educational research, we recognize that change is an essential component of school improvement.  We are very concerned, however, at a continuing pattern of changes imposed rapidly without high-quality evidentiary support. The new evaluation system for teachers and principals centers on misconceptions about student growth, with potentially negative impact on the education ofChicago’s children.  We believe it is our ethical obligation to raise awareness about how the proposed changes not only lack a sound research basis, but in some instances, have already proven to be harmful.

Hence it is politics, not research that is driving the push to hook teachers up to a brain dead technocratic evaluation system that may actually do more harm than good. Perhaps the most insightful observer of contemporary American education, Diane Ravitch , frames it this way:

 This is the vision that Washington now supports, and that the Chicago school board, appointed by current mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, endorses: more school closings, more privately managed schools, more testing, merit pay, longer school hours. But in Chicago itself, where these reforms started, most researchers agree that the results have been mixed at best. There has been no renaissance. After nearly twenty years of reform, the schools of  Chicago remain among the lowest performing in the nation.

But the fact that there is very little evidence that the reforms being pushed so zealously by both the right and their corporate liberal allies work just doesn’t matter.  Why?  Because the “accountability” crowd are unaccountable.  They are rich and powerful and can fill the political coffers of both parties—much more efficiently than the teachers’ unions can.  Thus, the CTU had to go old school and expose the emperor with no clothes.

What the teachers in Chicago are trying to do is not revolutionary; they are just trying to put the breaks on a runaway train by insisting that their evaluation process not be so heavily weighted in favor of unreliable standardized tests. But, most importantly, the teachers have been able to make their voices heard by putting a monkey wrench in the gears of the corporate education reform machine.

The teachers’ competing agenda for American education is one that values smaller classes, a well-rounded education, and schools that serve the whole child.  And these are all things that are being sacrificed in the service of high stakes testing and an idiotic business model that devalues critical thinking and aims to create a world full of good worker bees for the glorious neoliberal future, Inc.

I salute the CTU for their courage in standing up to the soulless Taylorist factory manager vision of education that the corporate technocrats want to impose on my eight year old son and his fellow school children.  As a teacher with over 20 years of experience practicing the profession in high schools, community colleges, and four-year universities, I know the teachers are right and that the self-interested billionaire boys club is wrong.  There is much more to a good education than what can be measured by a standardized test.  The qualitative matters as much, if not more, than the quantitative.  To sacrifice all that cannot be measured on the altar of efficiency is to take the humanity out of American education.

It would be nice if, in a better world, reason could win the day, but sometimes you just have to punch a bully in the mouth before he shows you any respect. And that’s what the CTU strike has done to Rahm Emanuel and the corporate ed reform gang. And that’s a good thing because it is the misguided reformers rather than the teachers who are hurting our schools and endangering our children’s future by fundamentally misdiagnosing the problem.  Sarah Jaffe of Truthout nails this in a recent article on the attacks on teachers where she quotes economist Dean Baker who notes that, “The main determinants of children’s performance continues to be the socioeconomic status of their parents.  Those unwilling to take the steps necessary to address the latter (eg. promote full employment) are the ones who do not care about our children.”

So good for the teachers in Chicago, the ones who work with kids everyday and really care about them.  Let’s hope they get a fair settlement and that their example spreads across the country and inspires teachers and parents everywhere to stand up for the integrity of our education system and the future of our children.  Thank you CTU.  After Wisconsin, we needed this.

Postscript:  Just last Friday a Wisconsin district court struck down most of Scott Walker’s anti-union law.  Out of the ashes of the old . . .





Jim Miller

Jim Miller, a professor at San Diego City College, is the co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See and Better to Reign in Hell, and author of the novel Drift. His most recent novel on the San Diego free speech fights and the IWW, Flash, is on AK Press.


  1. avatarbob dorn says

    Yes, Jim Miller, there has been a concerted attack on public education and public employees’ unions for a long time. The teachers’ unions have grown stronger during this time only because, as you point out, parents know who have been taking care of their kids’ bodies and minds and have supported the unions. You have to wonder how the various regimes, Democratic and Republican, can stomach their own policies toward the teachers and public education.

  2. avatarErnie McCray says

    I keep waiting, since the powers-that-be keep touting standardized testing as the answer to determining who is an effective teacher, for someone to show how it would work considering to all the variables that would be involved.

  3. avatar says

    Jim Miller presents a muscular defense of the Chicago Teachers Union and backs it up with a photo of red-shirted San Diego Education Association (SDEA) members standing with a banner to show solidarity.

    It should be noted that SDEA just voted to forego a spectral “raise” in 2012 based on phantom resources that had been granted in 2010 by a sold-out Board of Education majority that got itself elected with militant union money and shoeleather. In the face of no money at the District, SDEA recently tossed out that previous firebrand leadership for more realism and practicality.

    There’s more to the story than what Jim tells us here and it’s not as black and white as he portrays it. There’s no question that the mega-rich business lobby continues to pour money into propaganda slamming public education and attacking public school teachers as if they were replaceable in a democracy. There’s no doubt that Rahm Emanuel is a short-statured bully; that Obama and his agent Education Secretary Arne Duncan have drunk the Eli Broad/Bill Gates Kool-Aid; that unremarkable charter schools continue to proliferate at public expense; that “merit” pay for schoolteachers who are supposed to work as a team utterly contravenes the purpose of collaboration; that student performance on no-stakes fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests is an unreliable measure for assessing teacher effectiveness.

    But it must be acknowledged that over time teachers’ unions have accumulated crippling power over some essential functions of public schools that were meant first and foremost to work in students’ best interest. In California, teachers unions historically have preferred higher pay over smaller classes — something we desperately need if the kids in our schools are to be well-educated.

    A genuine stumbling block to better delivery of public education is teachers’ union contracts drawn in unwavering opposition to
    1) requiring more professional preparation and tougher entrance requirements for the job;
    2) to longer school years and/or school days;
    3) to “probation” longer than two years before a teacher is considered “tenured;”
    4) to any reasonable measurement of teacher effectiveness in relation to student performance: the Stull Act in CA is a joke;
    5) to district office autonomy in balancing school staffs rather than relying on teacher seniority which leads to clusters of novice teachers irrespective of a school’s needs;
    6) to modifying last-hired-first-fired practices based on teacher seniority alone;
    7) to ending the lengthy misnamed “due process” by which a teacher suspended for cause may appeal dismissal outside the system.

    This fight is not about Bad Rich Privatizers vs. Kind Downtrodden Teachers. It is about selfish forces arrayed behind these labels that ignore the actual conditions in the homes, in the neighborhoods, in the classrooms, in the schools of the children who show up every morning — or not, actually, as in Chicago’s case 40% of kids drop out
    of school before graduation.

    • avatarJim Miller says

      Spoken like a former school board member: full of top-down, evidence free solutions, factual inaccuracies, and straw men. There is zero evidence that collective bargaining is the root of all our educational ills. Indeed the other industrialized countries who are doing much better than us pay teachers far more and are also thoroughly unionized. Yet, in the current zeitgeist, even liberals find the pull of managerial ideology irresistible. Hey, if you can’t discipline the people who are responsible for crashing the economy and imposing scarcity on the public sector and starving education budgets, then you can at least kick the teachers around. The sad thing is that once you win this battle and thoroughly deprofessionalize teaching, you’ll be stuck with the same problems just like the geniuses in Chicago’s seemingly endless reform crusade have been. But the answer is always more of the same bad medicine. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now THAT is an oversimplification.

    • avatarDoug Porter says

      FYI Jim Miller had absolutely nothing to do with the selection of graphics. Graphics are selected by the editor du jour, which in this case was me (Doug Porter)

  4. avatar says

    Actually, Jim, I was clear as a bell on what I agreed with you about and on what specifically in the teachers’ union contract prevents us from better educating the children who come before us. Name one factual inaccuracy. I think you are the idealogue, not I.

    The teachers union is the biggest, richest, spendingest lobby in the State of
    California and its interest is not about educating kids — it’s consolidating and keeping power. “Managerial” is what elected school board members are supposed to be, sorry to tell you, and the delivery of the best possible education to kids is supposed to be our purpose. When the union contract bollixes that up, it needs to be adjusted. Collective bargaining need not interfere with the excellent public education of children.

    • avatarJim Miller says

      What’s clear as a bell is that you are just another voice in the blame the unions crowd. Your first mistake is to cite a photograph that I did not choose as part of my argument and then engage in a red herring about SDEA which was not the subject of the piece. Hence you are attacking a strawman. Then you engage in a red herring about SDEA before returning to acknowledge that the central points of my critique of the Chicago model ( the actual subject of the piece) are correct. This is then followed by a return to a laundry list of sweeping generalizations about unions that are largely false. AFT does NOT oppose smaller class sizes, nor does it oppose more teachers’ training, or reasonable negotiations about evaluations, school calendars, or professional development. The key word here is negotiation. I have been in multiple negotiations with my local. Have you ever negotiated a contract? I suspect not, because you clearly don’t understand how contracts are created or how they work. As for your critique of seniority and due process, show me the study that illustrates that these have had a tangible impact on student success. As someone who has been involved in multiple termination cases where the employee was indeed fired, I can tell you that if you have competent administration, due process does not serve as an impossible hurdle to getting rid of employees. But the larger problem with your argument, despite its utter lack of evidence, is that it sees the problem in the wrong place–the need to fire bad senior teachers, rather than the need to keep good young teachers, most of whom quit (as the piece notes) in the first five years. And then we could discuss the issue of upping the ante on accountability while gutting funding for the schools. But it’s a lot easier to play the smug manager, most of whom don’t know much about education, but seem to think that all would be better if schools were run more like businesses. Ideology, like bad breath, is always something the other person has, no?

  5. avatar says

    It interests me to have stepped into the Land of the Doctrinaire. Tough that you cannot handle disagreement with your point of view/party line. Talk to the editor about disavowing the photo: it was present and therefore became relevant to my discussion. We live in San Diego and what’s happened in the last year here is not “a red herring.” It’s been serious and damaging.

    As I’m sure you know, California public schools for the most part do not enjoy unionization by the smaller, more progressive American Federation of Teachers of which you are a proud member. In San Diego it’s SDEA, recently affiliated with the AFL-CIO, and guided by California Teachers Association, the state’s biggest, richest, most active lobby. CTA participates in the National Education Association. Does AFT also belong to NEA ? If not, why is AFT separate?People might like to know.

    You equate teachers with their unions — which is necessary and good strategy for unions, always, but I don’t share that view. I happen to believe that public education of kids is diminished by teachers’ union contracts which prevent the very specific things I listed. You get hot under the collar because you know exactly how these issues negatively impact the ideals of best educational practice, how they are exploited by the enemies of public education and how they damage its public standing — as in “gutting funding for the schools.” I agree with you that these matters should be addressed and negotiated — with the goal first, foremost and always being a better outcome for the education of children.

    I do not have any interest in firing anybody, even what you call “bad senior teachers,” but I do think such folks ought to be counseled out of their positions. If teaching colleagues undertook that task, that would be an improvement over the cold limbo that’s tolerated now. The “competent” administrative process required at present by the union contract takes disproportionate time and attention from a principal’s main job which is to be a school’s lead teacher and in the classrooms, thinking about students and their instruction. And young teachers would not quit if they got the TLC and academic support from their colleagues and administrators that they need to make it through the early years.

    Don’t get all insulting by alleging that I think schools should be “run like businesses.” Schools should be run for the benefit of students first, and that teachers’ training, working conditions and wages are important– but second to the teaching and learning of kids.

  6. avatarJim Miller says

    Again, you fall back into the tired fallacy of insisting that you speak from a place free of ideology while I inhabit the “land of the doctrinaire.” It is indeed difficult to argue with someone who has so completely naturalized their ideology that they cannot begin to see it as such. The piece was about a strike by an AFT union in Chicago that was preceded by years of community activism with parents on key issues affecting their children. The strike was a fine example of social justice unionism getting the better of the neoliberal Democratic power structure whose aims aren’t much different than Mitt Romney’s when it comes to working people and children alike. Your notion that teachers are not their unions is straight out of Emanuel’s education advisor’s play book. It is a greatly damaging tack which aims to totally destroy teachers unions which would be a big step in eliminating unions period. The fact is that corporate interests outspend unions, teachers unions included, by more than 15-1. Indeed, if CTA was so powerful, why did Brown just sign pension reform and why are teachers unions on the political defensive, even here on the left coast? Answer: because liberals have abandoned teachers in the service of a new neoliberal educational hegemony that is very precisely driven by the ideology of the business model. It is a kind of academic Taylorism and just because you are a Democrat doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of standing with the technocrats against the classroom teachers like my son’s brilliant 3rd grade teacher who is also the union representative for her school. It really is folks like her that care about the kids, not the overzealous sky is falling education reformers. The answer isn’t to make sure principals have more power to tell her what to do, it is to give her the autonomy and resources to teach without having to worry about teaching to some shitty test or getting a pink slip every year. As I noted in my piece, it is the folks who ignore the larger issues like poverty that affect the context of children’s learning and focus instead only on disciplining teachers that are the enemies of our children’s future. They may be well-intended but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Every teacher I know, and I know a lot of them, is in it for the kids, so your assertions to the contrary are an insult to them and to the profession as a whole. Young teachers quit because the profession is under constant assault and they get no support, not because union contracts take up the principal’s time but because there are not enough resources to provide the things you wish were there. Fund the schools first, then we can argue about what needs to change.

  7. avatar says

    It is hard to discuss this important question with you because zealotry gets in the way. “Someone who has so completely naturalized their ideology that they cannot begin to see it as such.” Oh, so that’s what it is: and all along I’ve been thinking it’s reality biting.

    Teachers’ unions are on the ropes because leadership has been intransigent about holding onto every scintilla of traditional “power” consolidated over years, because everything is about the win/lose restrictive terms of the contract and is NEVER about the quality of education delivered or the real needs of students.

    Teachers unions have ceded the conversation about what is really good for kids to the so-called “reformers” and now they (and their members) are under siege, clinging to their guns and their religion, so to speak. Teaching is not like working on the line in Detroit. It is different. And teachers’ unions should be different from the (fading) unions for organized labor.

    Why aren’t teachers, through their unions (as in the community projects undertaken by the AFT in Chicago?) in the forefront of defining what kids need to be learning, why they should be learning broadly rather than narrowly, why they should be writing more, what the school environment should be like, how teachers should collaborate to improve program, what can be done to strengthen the profession.

    Failure to take the lead in these areas — to take back the turf that’s been expropriated by
    people like Michelle Rhee and the dilettantes from Teach for America — guarantees extinction. And more’s the pity for us all.

    P.S. “Fund the schools first, then we can argue about what needs to change.” They never said that in Cuba when they taught everyone on the island to read.

  8. avatarKelly Mayhew says

    I’m going to chime in here very briefly. Jim, my colleague and partner, is up in Oakland at our California Federation of Teachers meeting working on curriculum (imagine that: we unionized teachers actually DO care about our teaching!) and on the Yes on Proposition 30 campaign to help fund our schools to stave off even more draconian cuts to the education budget. So, as he said, you can continue to assail him in his absence.

    One last note, check out today’s SDFP article on the film “Won’t Back Down” and its ties to ALEC and education privatizers. Continuing to glibly bash teachers and our unions in the wake of the monstrous amount of money going into eliminating public education only adds fuel to the fire of corporate ed “reform.” What young person in their right mind would want to go into teaching these days? Almost none of my students do, which is tragic. The problem isn’t our unions; the problem is the people who want to “save” us from them because they get in the way of efforts to “reform” education via the business model. Check out the ways they honor teachers in Finland, the world’s #1 school system. 96% of those teachers are unionized. Over and out.

  9. avatar says

    Anyone who can read sees that neither you nor Jim will engage with me on the points I’ve made here: it’s outside your playbook. I think these points are important and reflect the thinking of many families with kids who now are being presented with choices between public schools and growing numbers of charter schools.

    No one “assails”Jim in his absence. No one “glibly” bashes teachers and their unions. I AM saying there is trouble in paradise, that teachers need to wake up from the torpor of union protectionism and find a way to take back authority and initiative for creating positive change — yes, real reform of the system. Teachers are the experts who can accomplish it, but cherished notions need to go and guts need to be summoned if new ideas are to prevail.

    I think the alternative to change is obliteration of the status quo by the very corporate forces you describe that are privatizing public schools and selling off elections to the biggest richest PACs. I’m not interested in Finland or in ANY of the propaganda films about public education that preach to disparate choirs or in “honoring” teachers or parents for doing their jobs. I’m interested in strengthening public schools and improving the quality of public education for all the kids who so desperately need it.