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Wisconsin and the Siege of Chicago

Amidst our polarizing political debates, there's a natural desire to regard education as a bipartisan bright spot. While it contains some truth, this happy sentiment also obscures much. Nowhere is that better illustrated than in the ways that Republicans and Democrats approach the questions of collective bargaining. (For a more extended take on all this, check out my recent National Review piece here.)

The alpha and omega here are September's Chicago teacher strike and 2011's operatic clash over Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's push to narrow the scope of collective bargaining. The contests in Wisconsin and Chicago starkly illuminate the difference between Republican and Democratic approaches to reform. When it comes to Chicago, the consensus in edu-circles was that Mayor Rahm Emanuel got rolled by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). For instance, a recent Whiteboard Advisors poll found that 62% of respondents thought the CTU won the strike while just 9% thought Emanuel prevailed (30% thought the city's parents and students lost.) Chicago offered a stark counterpoint to Walker's 2011 legislative win and subsequent recall victory.

When the CTU opted to strike, it seemed a golden opportunity for Emanuel. After all, the Democratic reform agenda rests on the promise that a mix of heavy-handed evaluation and pay policies, reform advocacy, and collaborative signals will yield the hoped-for changes. Having America's toughest mayor (and the Obama administration's famously blunt-spoken former chief of staff) stare down an aggressive union in the nation's third biggest city seemed a perfect chance to make the case for the Democratic approach. Yet, despite a strong opening hand, Emanuel, an ardent champion of education reform, wound up with precious little. The new three-year contract calls for raises of 3 percent, 2 percent, and 2 percent in successive years. On teacher evaluations, Emanuel managed only to get the CTU to comply with state law. Emanuel's pledge to extend the school day was unsuccessful.

A more striking contrast to Walker's 2011 fight would be hard to find. Walker overcame a ferocious onslaught from public employee unions to pass Act 10, dramatically narrowing the scope of collective bargaining. Henceforth, teachers could negotiate over wages and wage-related benefits, but not such things as work rules and school start times. Wisconsin's Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that Walker's pension provision alone will save schools $600 million over two years. These savings free up dollars to support classrooms and instruction.

Yet, in school-reform circles, Walker got little credit for any of this. The most startling development was how eager "reform" Democrats were to defend the unions and attack Walker. Our earnest Secretary of Education went out of his way to opine, "For [Walker] to go in that direction after the leadership that the union had shown simply made no sense to me. It was nonsensical." Joe Williams, president of Democrats for Education Reform, wrote, "How do we keep the political focus on providing a quality education for all students at a time when some Republican leaders appear to be primarily salivating at the chance to whack a significant political opponent?" Unlike Republicans, William wrote, "We believe that teacher unions have a crucial voice . . . [and] we're kind of creeped out by some of what we are seeing and hearing these days in the Heartland."

Chicago proved the perfect test case for the Duncan-Williams view. Would a tough-minded Democratic mayor, offering teachers significant pay increases in a tough economy, be able to win big changes and demonstrate that Walker-style reform is unduly harsh? The answer was "No."

There are three big lessons here.

Treat the cause, not the symptoms. Even if Emanuel had prevailed, his victory would have been less far-reaching than Walker's. Emanuel's approach requires district leaders to win piecemeal the things that Walker achieved in one fell swoop, and then to resist fierce, organized employee unions year after year as they seek new protections. Treating the cause is made doubly important by the "evergreen" clauses found in one-third of the nation's big district teacher contracts. These provisions require that contract conditions remain in force--even after the contract expires--until both parties agree to a change.

Democratic reform costs more. Whereas Walker's reforms saved dollars, Emanuel's deal aggravated the financial troubles of Chicago's schools. The contract is expected to cost $295 million over four years, even as Chicago Public Schools anticipates a $1 billion deficit in 2015-16. Walker achieved huge savings by requiring teachers to make their own contributions, but Emanuel didn't push the issue, even as the city has been paying $130 million a year to cover most of the teachers' pension contributions. (A Wisconsin judge recently struck down Act 10's employee-contribution requirement, but the decision is under appeal and appears likely to be reversed by a higher court.)

Conservative school reformers should not count too heavily on progressive allies. Mitt Romney and other Republicans were quick to back Emanuel, but the Democrats' delicate alliance with teachers' unions makes it hard for them not to score points with a politically important constituency when they see Republicans pushing aggressively. Walker got kneecapped or strategically ignored by progressive reformers in his time of need, with even typically fearless Democratic reformers such as Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee keeping a careful silence. Republican governors and reformers elsewhere can expect similar treatment when they take on the unions.

Our desire to find points of nonpartisan agreement is healthy, and admirable. But we ought not let it blind us to the fact that there are real partisan differences on questions of educational substance.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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