Monday, September 17, 2012

Perception and Reality

An interesting side effect of having recently bought a home is that I've found myself taking a bigger interest in my community. Perhaps it's having a school next door, or perhaps it's simply knowing that where I am will be "home" for the next several years, I'm not sure. Still, you don't have to be a home owner to have heard about
the Chicago teachers' strike.

The strike has been unusual as it has addressed a laundry list of issues. One of the issues raised has been pay. Chicago teachers are cited as earning between $49,000 and $92,000 a year and initially pushed for a 30% pay increase, while the city offered 16% over four years. The number offered by the city is in far excess of the budget and increases the education deficit, as reported here.

As negotiations have continued, and financial concessions have been met, the real meat of the issue has become increasingly apparent: job security. Working conditions, such as lack of air conditioning, have been raised but these are no doubt connected to job security, since under the new evaluation system, test scores will play a significant role (roughly 1/4-1/5 of the overall evaluation) in teacher retention. To mitigate this, experienced teachers have been guaranteed that they will not be penalized after the first year's evaluation, thus allowing time to tweak any problems in the new system. An appeals process is in place as well. Bearing these factors in mind, it is hard to understand why teachers would not make a good faith gesture by returning to school, at least until the details of the contracts can be hammered out. It is the refusal to do so, and the perception that this is simply union politics at the expense of children's education, which has led Mayor Rahm Emanuel to file an injunction, trying to force the teachers to return to work. As it has become clear that the desired changes are more systemic than financial, the strike has been deemed illegal, since it is ultimately job security, not pay, that is the hold out. So far, the courts have stalled, no doubt not wanting to be "The Next Wisconsin."

The big problem the courts are faced with, and this is a concern for teachers' as well, is the impact that the strike has on parents and children. Latino Ed Beat points out, for example, the significant toll this is taking on Latino families, many of whom are struggling to find care for their children while the strike continues:

With her two daughters kept out of school because of the Chicago teachers strike, Patricia Rodriguez was left with no other option than to take them with her to her job at a local laundromat this week. The Chicago teachers’ strike affected nearly 180,000 Latino children enrolled in the school district, many from disadvantaged families, Fox News Latino reports.

Additionally, there is the consequence suffered from lack of education, which risks putting already disadvantaged students behind academically. Other parents have resorted to home schooling and CPS has begun offering online AP courses for high school students needing to keep up to and stay competitive in college admissions. Every day that the strike continues is a day that parental patience wanes. The loss of support is significant, and the teachers run the risk of seeming uncompromising at best and self-interested at worst.

All of this creates a distinct problem for the courts, who will be forced to choose between two unappealing scenarios: the risk of being accused of "union busting" on the one hand and the risk of seeming unwilling to protect families' right to education on the other. In a city where the affluent frequently approach urban living as "Fun to do when you're young, but when it's time to raise a family, move to the suburbs"it will be important to demonstrate that we can ensure basic access to education for all children. Not doing so will widen the already enormous education disparity between urban public schools and suburban and private schools. This isn't to say that there aren't some real issues for the conditions of public schools, but unless the teachers are willing to return and teach while these issues are being addressed, they run the serious danger of backlash.

When Union president Karen Lewis states, "No one will ever look upon a teacher and think of him or her as a passive person to be bullied and walked on ever again" there is quite a bit of truth in that. However, this may not be a good thing. In the long term, eroding parental trust in the school systems will have an adverse impact on the reputation of Chicago teachers and will decrease morale within the community and increase the already too pervasive flight to the suburbs. Furthermore, the perception of assertiveness might go overboard. We probably have all met people who had trouble asserting themselves and over-accommodated, only to become aggressive when they mean to be merely assertive. The teachers run the risk of conveying this impression: they've taken a stand and now they won't back down until they get everything they want. I wonder though, if this is really a perception that they want to convey of teachers. With education under attack by conservatives, do you really want to create the image that children are collateral damage in service of "the bigger cause"?