Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Choice v. Desperation

With Mayor Rahm Emanuel declaring Chicago's teachers' strike one of choice, it's worth a look backward to see how things got where they are. Lots of people in NYS are surprised that teachers are allowed to strike anywhere, but in fact, NYS is in the minority. In our case, it was a transit strike that led to 1967's Taylor Law, which ironically has become the bane of anti-unioner's existence in several regards. The Taylor Law does not allow any public sector union to call a strike--not police, firefighters, teachers, bus drivers.... at the same time, it grants all public employees the right to unionize and negotiate, and its Triborough Amendment ensures that in the event of lack of a contract, the previous contract stands indefinitely, making certain negotiations extremely difficult. The Taylor Law makes strikes illegal, which does not mean there haven't been teacher strikes in NYS since 1967, but in most cases, fines have been imposed on striking workers once any such strike was settled.

Chicago is one of many cities whose mayor now controls the schools. Others include Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Jackson, LA, NYC, Philadelphia, and Providence. Daley II took over Chicago schools in 1995, citing low test scores. Removing the elected board of education removes public education from direct public control. On the other side of the coin, an elected mayor often has a far bigger mandate than any school board member, who might typically be elected by 5 to 10 percent of the voting population.

Although there have been interviews with teachers complaining about class sizes and the length of the school day, which Mayor Rahm extended, the main sticking points seem to be what happens to laid-off teachers (are they placed in a pool for the next vacancy; can they receive a lump-sum payment; what if there's no room for them in the system; what happens to my class sizes if you close schools, get rid of teachers, and move the kids to my school) and how teachers are evaluated (the equivalent of NYS's APPR system, which is causing major agita around our state as well).

Chicago's teachers make what looks like a good living to people in upstate NY, whose average salary falls below the $50K+ that a starting Chicago teacher without a Master's degree makes fresh out of school. However, Chicago does not reward longevity the way some other cities do; after 25 years, a teacher in NYC will typically make more than one in Chicago. Salaries are not a key issue in this strike; the two sides are close, and the offer from the city looks pretty substantial to those of us who see 2% increases as the absolute max locally.

Most battles between union and management come down to personalities, and this one is no exception. Karen Lewis seems like a fitting foil to Mayor Rahm. Meanwhile, national politics is getting into the act, but you have to believe that Obama does not want to dip a toe into a mess in his home city that involves his former chief of staff and accountability-based education policies made by his own dept of ed.

I student taught at a public school in Hyde Park where protesters yesterday frightened some kids away from the doors but where some kids and their parents also joined the picket lines. I was there 35 years ago, and the school was already something of a dump. To tell you the truth, it looks a bit better now; I can guarantee that Latin was not taught in second grade when I was there. Even 35 years ago, the teachers felt extremely distant from the administration and light years away from anyone who really held sway over their lives, which at that time would have been an elected board. Mayors who wrest control from the people to run the schools may do so out of pure motives; it is much easier to impose order from above than to have it trickle upward through policy and public meetings. But when things go bad, the mayor becomes the bad guy. I can't imagine that Mayor Rahm will have much time to deal with his horrendous murder rate, the state of his roads and bridges, or rent control until this is settled. And he has to avoid looking like Scott Walker. It will be a tap dance worthy of a former Joffrey scholarship winner.

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