Chicago teacher strike poses test for unions

In the past, teachers unions could count on a Democratic White House to fight back on their behalf. But Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, is a former head of the Chicago Public Schools who has pushed for many of the changes that unions oppose.

“In many ways, the Obama administration has signed onto the very conservative set of reforms that the education community is imposing on teachers,” said Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, a progressive-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C.

Both the NEA and the AFT have strongly endorsed Obama’s re-election despite his administration’s support of policies to expand charter schools, weaken tenure, and base teacher evaluations on how much student performance improves.

The Chicago union argues that the new teacher evaluation system relies too heavily on standardized test scores without considering outside factors such as student poverty, violence, and homelessness that can affect performance.

Hess said the Chicago strike has become an important test case after unions lost their effort to recall Wisconsin’s governor.

“If it looks like the union folds, especially on the heels of Wisconsin, it’s a huge blow for the unions,” Hess said. “If the union seems to win, that’s going to be a blow to reform-minded mayors and puts some wind into the sails of unions.”

There are major differences, though, between the cases in Wisconsin and Chicago.

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While Walker effectively challenged public employee unions’ collective bargaining rights, both sides in Chicago have been negotiating over traditional labor-management issues. The district proposed a 16-percent raise over four years, and the two sides have essentially agreed on a longer school day. But job security and a new teacher evaluation system remained in dispute.

“This is a long-term battle that everyone’s going to watch,” said Eric Hanuskek, a senior fellow in education at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. “Other teachers unions in the United States are wondering if they should follow suit.”

Teachers have been on the defensive in recent years amid what they see as a rising tide of anti-teacher sentiment nationwide, fueled partly by public resentment of unions. Teachers also feel they are being singled out unfairly for students’ poor academic performance—something that is largely a result of societal factors beyond their control, they argue, such as parents’ attitudes at home and a public school funding system that is inequitable because it relies largely on a community’s local tax base.

Teachers also are frustrated at how they have been portrayed in recent movies, such as the documentary Waiting for ‘Superman,’ which blamed unions for the problems plaguing U.S. public education. Teachers are worried about a similar portrayal in an upcoming Hollywood movie called Won’t Back Down, set to open in theaters on Sept. 28. The film tells the story of a mother’s quest to take control of her daughter’s failing elementary school.

AFT President Randi Weingarten has blasted the movie as “using the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen” and unfairly blaming unions for the nation’s school woes. Union leaders were even more outraged that the movie was screened at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., and that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa—the convention chairman—attended the screening.

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