Not so long ago, many youngsters wanted to grow up to be a teacher, and parents were pleased to encourage them. Not any longer. Teachers have become the Rodney Dangerfields of postmodern America. They typically can say, "I don't get no respect."
And for good reason. Many teachers are dedicated, work long hours and are responsible for dealing with a multitude of problems that are not strictly academic, but the lousy ones are the rotten apples spoiling many a barrel. The good ones defend the bad ones. The striking teachers of Chicago public schools give liberals, even if they call themselves "progressives," a bad name. Photographs on the front page and footage on the evening news make the political personal. Who wants screaming people like that teaching the children?
Unfair? It's hard to make that argument when these teachers are matched with their demands. The strike falls hardest on working parents scurrying to make home-care arrangements for their children while teachers picket for a raise of 30 percent on $75,000 a year. (They turned down a 16 percent raise.) The average Chicago taxpayer who pays for those salaries has to get by on a mere $47,000. The teachers, unlike taxpayers paying their salaries, don't want anybody measuring their work, either. No rigorous performance evaluations.
They want control over how the schools are managed, too, to prevent principals from choosing staff, and they're insisting that when new teachers are hired the principals must choose from a list of laid-off teachers, no matter why they were laid off or how unqualified they may be.
Teachers unions were once meant to provide protections for good teachers, especially those of minority races, but it's minority students taking the fall for incompetence in Chicago. Graduation rates of 56 percent are among the lowest in the country. Graduates fortunate enough to be admitted to college are unprepared. In one study, only six of every 100 graduates who got to college stay for a four-year degree. Rates for black and Hispanic students are abysmal indeed; only three of every 100 get a degree.
Private-sector employers unbound by sweetheart contracts could easily fill positions with qualified employees willing to work for less when so many qualified workers can't find work. But if you're a teacher in these unions, you get an ax to chip away at benefits for others. They're still smarting because Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed to extend their number of teaching hours, which were among the shortest in the country. Some teachers are angry because the mayor (like the president he once worked for) enrolled his children in private schools.
If, in fact, the president wants to cast his campaign as one of class warfare, he's got a ready-made laboratory in Chicago. Or he could use the strike as his Sister Souljah moment, teaching his union base a needed lesson on behalf of the children in his adopted hometown, where he once organized communities.
The president insists he's not taking sides. Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, says he's confident "that both sides have the best interests of students at heart." How could anybody believe that? Jay Carney, the president's press spokesman, says the president's "principal concern" is the children. He should show it.
Presidential politics trumps the children and their families.
Education has been the forgotten child in this presidential campaign, with the main focus on vouchers, which Republicans support and Democrats decry. The president and his friends insist such choice will destroy the public schools, ignoring the fact plain to everyone else that the public schools, once the nation's pride, are well on the way to destruction already. The Chicago strike exposes the teachers unions as exploiters of good will, both the president's good will and the good will of parents, pupils and the rest of us.
The union clearly expects to extract concessions by striking so close to the elections. The unions' campaign contributions give them a loud voice, while the children have no voice at all.
The teachers are getting no public sympathy; there's almost no partisan divide on this issue. Many of the parents are in politics and the media, at both the local and national level, and they know what's going on. They know who encourages reform and who obstructs it. When their children are involved, they show little forbearance with union politics.
"It's probably about the dumbest thing the union could do from a national standpoint," Chester Finn, head of the Fordham Institute and a conservative critic of how children in modern America are taught, tells The New York Times. "It will remind everybody that teachers unions are about teachers, not kids." Fancy that.
Write to Suzanne Fields at: [email protected] To find out more about Suzanne Fields and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.