Wake up, Chicago Teachers Union | On Politics | Chicago Reader

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Wake up, Chicago Teachers Union

Mayor Emanuel has changed the rules—and you need to get in the game


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After my column last week about our union-busting mayor ("Mayor union-buster: Rahm Emanuel fights the Chicago Teachers Union over a longer school day—and it's not about the kids"), I've been getting calls and e-mails from people in the mayor's north-side fan base who say I'm too easy on the teachers.

Must you be so hard on the mayor? Can't you just say something bad about the teachers?

Yes, I can.

As much as I think Mayor Emanuel's plan to add 90 minutes to the school day is a union-busting public relations scheme that's been pushed without adequate discussion of how the extra time should be used . . .

And as much as I appreciate public school teachers for all they have done for publicly educated children, including my own . . .

I have to say: the teachers brought a lot of this on themselves.

Or at least their union did—along with just about everyone else in this town who went along with the game that was being played. In this way, they were no different than the black ministers, north-side independents, free-market libertarians, and all the others who looked the other way so they could get their little scraps of the pie during the Daley years.

For years, the teachers union was playing by a set of rules that suddenly changed. And it's clear they're not sure what to do about it.

As a former City Hall press operative once explained to me, for most of his tenure, Mayor Daley didn't want to play the bad guy. Despite all of his power, Daley's first instinct was to avoid a fight by cutting a deal.

For example, he bought off leaders in the black community by larding the CPS central office with payrollers sent over by various ministers, activists, aldermen, and state legislators, who could then be counted on to remain silent in the face of whatever educational scheme the mayor was coming up with for the day. Like—just to name one—the end of social promotion, which led to thousands of black kids being held back, ostensibly for their own good, because they scored low on standardized tests.

A lot of good that's done, by the way—the dropout rate remains around 50 percent.

For the teachers, it meant taking annual raises of roughly 2 to 4 percent. (Come to think of it, that's way better than I've done.)

But in exchange for those raises, the mayor got the teachers' complicity—or at least their union's—on everything from the tax increment financing program to wasteful downtown spending to the bid for the 2016 Olympics, all of which siphoned off energy and resources. More to the point at hand, they did pretty much the same thing on education issues, essentially giving the mayor and his central-office appointees complete jurisdiction over curriculum, testing, and other important classroom issues.

Yes, a handful of firebrands on the fringes of the union were always talking about empowering teachers to join the larger debate over classroom policies. But generally the reaction of the union leaders ran a little like this:

Forget that highfalutin educational stuff! We're a union—we bring home the bacon. If you want to talk educational policy, go teach at the university.

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