"This didn't have anything to do with the children; this was an adult fight," said the Rev. James Meeks, the former state senator, former mayoral candidate and longtime school reform champion who once fought the CTU by supporting school choice for the urban poor.
I interviewed Meeks on WLS-AM 890, where I've been filling in this week as a midmorning radio co-host. We also interviewed Juan Rangel, the CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization, who runs many charter schools. Charters are government-funded, privately administered schools that will likely pick up more public students in the weeks ahead.
Both Meeks and Rangel are realistic men who've spent lifetimes in Chicago politics and understand the politics of education.
"There will be no more resources in the classroom than there were two weeks ago," Meeks said. "If the fight was about putting children first and making sure children had books, I didn't hear anything in any settlement that said we will buy the kids more books, so no … I'd say the kids won't be better off."
I agree. Here are four ideas I took away from the strike:
1. That despite all the spinning over whether the mayor or the teachers "won" or "caved," the children didn't win. The children lost. The congenital failure rate in the public schools — where about 4 out of 10 kids don't graduate and even fewer are prepared for college — will continue, as the union gets a raise and the mayor gets to say he lengthened the school day by a few minutes. The kids always lose to the politics of Chicago.
2. In political terms, the strike exposed a growing rift between two main constituencies of the Democratic Party, the public service unions and the urban poor. If Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker were mayor of Chicago, labor and allies would have howled him down. The conflict between the unions and the people they're supposed to serve would be a running national story. But Walker is a Republican who fought the unions in Wisconsin. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a Democrat, with his former boss President Barack Obama running for re-election. So national labor contempt was muted. Still, the rift remains and grows, as local governments run out of resources.
3. Emanuel's side has already leaked out that he plans to close 80 to 120 schools, as reported recently by the Tribune. So look for privately administered charter schools — whose teachers aren't members of the CTU — to increase their stake in this game. Ultimately, the charter schools will become political power centers in their own right and will be allied with the man who funds them: Emanuel.
4. The Chicago Public Schools system is about $1 billion in debt, and the new teacher raises add about another $300 million to that debt. But only a short while ago, Emanuel had his school board raise property taxes by some $200 million. Add to taxpayer burden an $83 billion unfunded public pension liability for the entire state, as city and suburban property taxes rise and home values drop or remain stagnant, and the future is bleak. Obama can print money. Emanuel and Illinois can't. So who comes up with the needed cash? You.
As a state senator, Meeks pushed for a so-called school voucher bill in Springfield for the bottom 10 percent of the worst-performing Chicago public schools. The voucher idea would allow children to take the money spent on their education and use it to pay tuition at parochial or private schools. I support vouchers as the fairest and best way to give parents choice.
The voucher bill failed because Republican legislators — and the weak-willed GOP leadership — caved to state teachers unions that fund Republican campaigns and viewed vouchers as a threat. But charter schools are ascendant. UNO now runs 13 schools in Chicago for about 6,500 students, most of them poor. Rangel said the schools typically are allotted $7,000 to $8,000 per pupil, with a 97 percent attendance rate. The teachers are usually paid less than those in the CTU.
"We just have high expectations of these kids and our parents. And you set the bar high, they'll deliver," Rangel said. "The unions obviously think of charters as a big threat, which I can understand it in terms of what the union is about, it's about protecting its members' interests. But at some point I hope they can think beyond that and be thinking about what we're trying to do in education and schools and communities."
Either way, the rift in the Democratic Party between the public employee unions and the poor is obvious to those who have eyes to see. Rangel said he felt the tension at the recent Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
"You could see it, you could sense it, it was palpable there, considering Illinois is a very Democratic state," Rangel said in the studio. "The state employees union had billboards on trucks going back and forth in the streets of Charlotte, against Gov. Pat Quinn. You could just sense that there was this tension there. I think it's a sign of our economic times. The reality is we can't afford the government we once did. I don't know that we ever really could afford it, but we certainly can't afford it now."
The taxpayers can't.
But neither can the kids.