George F. Will / Teachers seek more money, which won't do much to help kids
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The title of the nation's largest labor union -- the National Education Association -- seems calculated to blur the fact that it is a teachers union. In this blunt city, however, the teachers union candidly calls itself the Chicago Teachers Union. Its office is in the Merchandise Mart, which resembles a fortress located on the Chicago River, which resembles a moat. Which is appropriate.
Unions are besieged, particularly teachers unions, and nowhere more than here. Teachers unions have been bombarded with bad publicity, much of it earned, and have courted trouble by cloaking every acquisitive demand in gauzy rhetoric about how everything is "for the children."
Still, have sympathy for Karen Lewis, 58, a Dartmouth graduate who is a daughter of two African-American teachers. She taught chemistry for 22 years until becoming president of the 26,502-member CTU. Her job is to make life better for her members, not to make life easier for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose ideas are as admirable as his manners are deplorable.
He thinks improved schools, including more charter schools, might arrest the exodus to the suburbs of parents whose children are ready for high school, so he wants a longer school year and school day. America's school year (about 180 days) is one of the shortest in the industrial world, and while middle-class children may leaven their summers with strolls through the Louvre, less privileged children experience "summer learning loss." Remediation requires the first few weeks of the fall term, which effectively further shortens the school year.
The CTU wants a pay raise -- 30 percent -- proportional to Mr. Emanuel's 90-minute increase in the school day and 10-day increase in the school year. He offers only 2 percent. He says benefits the CTU has won -- e.g., many teachers pay nothing toward generous pensions they can collect at age 60 -- could in just three years force property taxes up 150 percent and require classes with 55 students.
Whose fault is this? Blaming unions for improvident contracts ignores the fact that a union's principal task is to enhance members' well-being -- wages, benefits, working conditions. Unions can wound themselves by injuring their industries (e.g., steel and autos), but primary blame for improvident contracts with public employees belongs to the elected public officials who grant them.
Anyway, money may not be the most problematic point of contention. It might be teacher "accountability," including merit pay, and identifying failing schools and teachers. Ms. Lewis says, "We can't choose the children that come into our classrooms." Chicago schools are 86 percent black and Hispanic, and low pupil performances strongly correlate with household incomes.
Teachers unions, however, have painted themselves into a corner by insisting that spending is the best predictor of educational performance. In the last 50 years, real per pupil spending nationwide has tripled and the number of pupils per teacher has declined by a third, yet educational attainments have fallen.
Abundant data demonstrate that the vast majority of differences in schools' performances can be explained by the homes from which children come to school: by the amount of homework done, the quantity and quality of reading material, the amount of television watched and, most important, the number of parents. In Chicago, 84 percent of African-American children and 57 percent of Hispanic children are born to unmarried women.
The city is experiencing an epidemic of youth violence; 53 people were shot on a recent weekend. Social regression, driven by family disintegration, means schools where teaching is necessarily subordinated to the arduous task of maintaining minimal order.
Mr. Emanuel got state law changed to require unions to get 75 percent of members rather than a simple majority to authorize a strike. Some people thought this would make strikes impossible. The CTU got 90 percent to authorize. Ms. Lewis' members are annoyed, and are not all wrong.
First Published July 6, 2012 12:00 am