Chicago Teachers Union: The ultimate special interest

On Monday the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) announced a “comprehensive and aggressive political action campaign” to oust Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, his school board appointees, and members of the city council with whom the union disagrees. The move comes weeks after the Chicago Public Schools announced plans to close up to 61 school buildings and transfer students to nearby schools.

According to WBEZ, CTU president Karen Lewis said, “If the mayor and his hand-picked corporate school board will not listen to us, we must find those who will."

Taking Lewis's comments at face value, this latest campaign is the most organized and intentional attempted special interest takeover of city government in decades.

This characterization is entirely fair, particularly in the wake of Lewis's comments before the federal Department of Education a few weeks ago, where she said all union decisions must pass these three qualifications, paraphrased here by Kyle Olson of Education Action Group:

  1. Will it strengthen the union?
  2. Will it unify the union?
  3. Will it build the union’s power?

Notice absolutely nothing in that list that refers to students, children, or the public good.

The Chicago Teachers Union has the organizational prowess and ability to win elections. It has done this for years in both Chicago and Springfield, where its allies have made billions in unfunded retirement promises to teachers that have been kept off-balance sheet and out of sight from the general public. Only now as these debts are coming due is the public beginning to realize the full scope of the influence public sector unions have on government in Illinois.

Were the Chicago Teachers Union serious about serving the students who will be displaced by school closings, it would consider the advice I had published in the Chicago Tribune a few weeks ago:

On the topic of the Chicago Public Schools set to be closed, I have an idea that should make everyone happy: Convert these schools into charter schools. That way they can truly be run by the community, with their own admissions standards and curriculums. Parents and teachers could form a non-profit tomorrow and apply for a charter quickly.

I'm sure the process could be fast-tracked so no students would have to go to another school while the charter application is in progress.

I am curious to hear whether the Chicago Teachers Union, one of the most vocal critics against closure, would support this plan, which would keep schools open in neighborhoods and unshackle them from much of the CPS bureaucracy.

It's understandable the CTU would not even entertain this option: it would reduce the union's power (see point 3 above). A group that agitates for political decisions to be made on this basis is the very definition of a special interest group, the type the union says it abhors. Indeed, it says it wants to have teachers be in control of schools instead of politicians, yet its plan to win elections with its own people keeps politicians in control of schools instead of devolving control to communities.

Charterizing neighborhood schools could address the single reasonable point the CTU makes about school closings: gang violence. Gangs have boundaries, and many kids in neighborhoods are de facto members of gangs simply by virtue of where they live. An episode of This American Life in February dealt with these troubling issues. If neighborhood schools were chartered under private management, this legitimate concern could be diminished. But because charter schools are not required to employ teachers who are members of the Chicago Teachers Union, this would never fly with union leadership whose only goals are to strengthen, unify, and build the power of the union.

The Chicago Teachers Union only has authority among people who believe at least one of two things: 1. the union is primarily concerned with student education (per Lewis's statements, it is not), or; 2. the union will work to acquire direct benefits for school employees (which it does very well). There are many more in the first camp than the second, and the union's membership cannot win elections alone. Therefore it is up to the people of Chicago to understand the CTU's true goals as stated clearly, and reject its attempts to secure the levers of government power for its own aggrandizement.

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