Chicago: The new Wisconsin?

When the teachers in Chicago walked out on strike this week, some wondered whether that might provide a boost to Barack Obama — perhaps an opportunity to intervene and resolve the issue.  Three days later, the Washington Post doesn’t sound too hopeful.  Given the fact that Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is now mayor and that teachers unions are a key part of the Democratic constituency, Peter Slevin reports that this might be a recipe for disaster:

Teachers are now on strike in Chicago— loudly and enthusiastically — and Emanuel (D) finds himself in a far more pointed and public battle than he had bargained for. Under a national spotlight, his famous dealmaking skills are being severely tested by an increasingly familiar set of schoolhouse issues seen in communities across the country as contentious and often personal.

If the strike persists, its tone and outcome could ripple well beyond Chicago, given Emanuel’s close association with President Obama. Union support is important to the Obama campaign, which has been careful not to weigh in, even as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney swiftly spoke out against the Chicago teachers.

As thousands of teachers took to the streets again Wednesday, there was general agreement that the sudden strike had roots in the combative positions Emanuel took when he left the White House last year to run for mayor. His support of the Illinois law requiring a 75 percent union vote for a strike — up from 50 percent — was Exhibit A.

“It stuck in my craw,” said Xian Barrett, former political director of the striking Chicago Teachers Union and now a history teacher at a South Side high school. “It made me feel as though he had no respect for us as people.”

Karen Lewis, the blunt-spoken CTU president, put it another way last week, shortly before the union called a strike for the first time in 25 years: “The only way to beat a bully,” Lewis said, “is to stand up to a bully.”

Well, true … but who exactly is the bully?  In my column for The Fiscal Times today, I point out the huge disparity between teacher pay and the average incomes of the people the CTU serves, and argue that this fight over the insufficiency of a 16% raise over the next four years may well produce the same kind of anger over public-employee union abuses that erupted in Wisconsin — especially since Chicago Public Schools faces a massive deficit as well:

When one compares it to the household income level of its clients – the citizens of Chicago – it looks less like a good deal and more like robbery.  Even the lower level claimed by CTU is 39 percent higher than the June 2012 national median household income of $50,964, determined by a Sentier Research report last month derived from Census Bureau data.  That $71,000 average is 45 percent better than the average earned by a Chicagoan with a college degree ($48,866), and 51 percent better than the 2010 median household income in the city ($46,877). …

While the parents of almost 400,000 children abandoned by teachers earning perhaps 50 percent more than their own income struggled to find alternatives, teachers went to the streets to party. EAG News captured one striker claiming that “this is the best I’ve felt in my entire career teaching!”  Another striker posed in a Che Guevara T-shirt and insisted that the revolutionary was “a role model standing for the people.”  Another insisted that the strike would go until the city capitulated entirely to their demands.

This union fight looks a lot like the one in Wisconsin over the last two years.  The city of Chicago and its school district are in “dire” financial straits.  Emanuel had to fill a $635 million budget deficit almost a year ago without hiking taxes any further than Governor Pat Quinn had hiked taxes for the entire state of Illinois – by as much as 67 percent in some cases.  The estimated budget deficit for the public school system exceeds even that large gap; it’s expected to grow to $861 million by 2014, thanks in part to contributions to the pension fund for CTU teachers.

The $400 million increase in the CPS offer over the next four years would have made the situation even worse.  Yet rather than accept that while the city and state try to find other ways to balance the budget and improve performance, the teachers walked out on hundreds of thousands of students, many poor and disadvantaged – not least by their own public school system – and stuck to what the late Mike Royko often insisted was the city’s true motto: Ubi est mea?  Where’s mine?

If you think I’m exaggerating about the party atmosphere of the strike, here’s the video from EAG:

I’m sure that Chicagoans were greatly entertained by the sight of professionals who make more than most of them earn holding a very public party while they scramble to get their children educated.  I’m not alone in warning of backfire on the PEUs, either.  Christian Schneider at City Journal made a similar point on Tuesday:

The Chicago strike serves as a counterpoint to events in Wisconsin after Walker’s election in 2010. In a protracted, contentious battle, Walker virtually eliminated collective bargaining for public employees, weakening the unions’ power significantly. Illinois is now demonstrating what Wisconsin might have looked like without Walker’s reforms. Those reforms didn’t come easy: for a year and a half, Wisconsin was paralyzed by demonstrations and union disruptions. But the union tantrums in Wisconsin clearly backfired, and in a recall election this past June, Walker won by a greater margin than he had in 2010, against the same opponent. Walker is now a national star on the Republican scene, while public-union membership is plummeting.

There’s no reason to believe that the Chicago teachers’ strike won’t similarly backfire on union loyalists. For one, the teachers’ demands are well beyond what normal citizens consider just. In recent negotiations, the CTU rejected a 16 percent pay increase over the next four years, which in today’s economic climate would seem like a generous deal to virtually anyone who doesn’t work for a public-employee union. Instead, the union demanded a 30 percent pay increase, in part to compensate for an extended school day. And the negotiations addressed only salaries. With new accounting rules in place, the Chicago Public Schools’ annual contribution for teacher pensions will jump from $231 million to $684 million between 2013 and 2014, according to the Illinois Policy Institute. Next year, pension costs will eat up nearly half of the education funding that Chicago schools receive from the state.

Perhaps most egregious are teachers’ attempts to duck accountability to save union jobs. Under Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan, a public school teaching position would no longer be a sinecure; teachers would have to justify their employment with their students’ test scores. While this makes sense to the public—Barack Obama’s own secretary of education, Arne Duncan, has fought for similar accountability plans nationwide—unions see it as a threat to job security, which, to them, clearly takes precedence over student learning.

Schneider makes an excellent point.  Everyone else who works has to perform to certain metrics or face disciplinary action or termination.  The CTU, whose average salary is 51% higher than the households they serve, want to preclude any accountability for performance while sucking even more money out of those same households.  And they’re singing and dancing about their arrogance on the streets of Chicago, while four in every ten students in their system fails to graduate from high school.

What if this was a private-sector industry?  How would that kind of performance and attitude translate?  Kyle Smith offers a humorous take at Forbes by imagining the CTU as the NFL:

[W]hat if the NFL were run the way public schools are?

The first major difference we’d notice is that the players don’t seem to be trying all that hard. The kicker barely nudges the ball off the tee. The kick returner picks up the ball and wanders around a little. No one is much interested in tackling him, but then again the kick returner isn’t very interested in dashing for the end zone. Nothing much seems to be happening in this game at all. At midfield someone has placed a coffee urn, and the players are standing around it lamenting their public perception.

Why? Because no one is keeping score.

The Chicago Teachers Union is adamantly against detailed, data-driven score-keeping and accountability. Only 30 percent of their evaluations are based on results — the performance of its students — and the CTU has fiercely opposed a feeble effort to raise that to 40 percent. The CTU argues that its evident failures are more due to factors beyond its control, such as the poverty, demographics and family habits of its students. Football players are judged 100 percent by their results, and no one fails to notice the great work of, say, Dan Marino just because he was surrounded by the untalented.

Yeah, but the draft is terrific, right?  Not exactly:

Even when senior league officials are present and the players show a little more spirit, you’ll notice that the play is sloppy and unmotivated. Can’t anyone here play this game? Where is all the young talent? Where are the exciting Cam Newtons and Robert Griffin IIIs?

They aren’t here. The players on the field are geriatric. Because they enjoy tenure, they can’t readily be fired, and once they can’t be fired they have no incentive to work hard. They know that if they just show up, they’ll continue to advance toward the huge payoff of their pensions. And with so many listless, disinterested veterans filling rosters there are only a few slots for rookies. Robert Griffin went off to play soccer. Cam Newton is trying his luck at golf.

President Obama likes to talk a lot about fairness.  No one looking at the compensation structure of the CTU as compared to its community, with an offer on the table for a 16% raise over four years, will think this strike fair to the parents paying those salaries.  No one who has to work with performance metrics in mind will accept the CTU position that opposes all metrics while nearly 40% of CPS students never get a high-school diploma.

The CTU is about to become the poster child for PEU reform.  They are dancing unions into a massive public-opinion trap.