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Different Views of School Reform

Educational reform varies greatly across the country. What is seen as transformational in one place is regarded as insignificant in another. The settlement of the teachers strike in Chicago this month, for example, contrasts dramatically with the referendum on the ballot in Idaho in November. Yet both come under the same umbrella.

Karen Lewis and Randi Weingarten claim that Chicago serves as a case study of moving past "random acts of 'reform' that have failed to move the needle and toward actual systemic school improvement" ("A Gold Star for the Chicago Teachers Strike," The Wall Street Journal, Sep. 24). They cite four ket tenets to make their case. Their argument differs from the sentiment in Idaho, where in 2011 tenure was eliminated and collective bargaining rights were severely curtailed ("What Do Teachers Deserve? In Idaho, Referendum May Offer Answer," The New York Times, Sep. 24).

The difference is largely due to the history of the two venues. Chicago has long been a union city, while Idaho has always been a staunchly conservative state. Yet there is more to the story. It has to do with shifting alliances. I don't recall a time when a Democratic mayor (Rahm Emanuel) and a Republican governor (C. L. Otter) shared the same opinion about a highly controversial issue. In this case, it's the power of teachers unions, which both Emanuel and Otter blame for the poor performance of students in their city and state, respectively.

We know how the seven-day strike in Chicago ended. How voters in Idaho will cast their ballot on the education overhaul package remains to be seen. If I read the tea leaves correctly, however, I think voters will support the new law because the tide is slowly but surely turning against teachers unions. There will be pockets of resistance, of course, but they will be anomalies. It's not that voters are disaffected with teachers individually. Instead, it's teachers unions. This view was expressed by Judge Andrew Napolitano, who said that "they don't deserve a gold star; they deserve a scarlet letter" ("Napolitano on Chicago Teachers Strike Op-Ed," Fox Business, Sept. 24).

Critics of teachers unions point out that police can't strike because doing so would pose a threat to the safety and welfare of the community. In their opinion, teachers who strike pose a threat to children by denying them an education. But what if not striking created an even more serious danger? Consider the situation today at American Airlines ("AMR's Pilot Troubles Grow," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 25). Its pilots complain that the airline is failing to address maintenance warnings about aging aircraft. As a result, flights have been delayed or cancelled, angering passengers. But isn't there a greater issue than inconvenience? By the same token, don't teachers have a duty to take a stand when children are subjected to conditions that undermine learning? Of course, parents are always inconvenienced when teachers strike. But isn't there also a greater issue involved?

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check 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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