Teachers in Chicago, home of the third-largest public school system in the country, went on strike on Monday. The labor disagreement marks one of the most high-profile battles over education reform to date. It’s a debate that’s pitted teachers unions against local governments across the country, including in D.C. We examine the issues in dispute, and what’s at stake for the broader national debate in Chicago.


  • Lyndsey Layton Reporter, The Washington Post


  • 13:06:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, fire, crackle wood and fearless prose, Kathleen Turner joins us in studio to discuss her new one-woman show on the life of Texan journalist, Molly Ivins.

  • 13:07:16

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, a teachers' strike in Chicago has reverberations in D.C. and across the country. Members of the Chicago Teachers Union are picketing for the second straight day. School kids are celebrating a day off and parents are scrambling after negotiations for a new contract broke down.

  • 13:07:33

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe issues at play sound familiar to anyone who has followed Washington's education reform battles, disputes over job security, merit pay and extended school hours. But this showdown could have broader, national implications, exposing rifts between Democrats and labor unions in the final stretch of the presidential campaign.

  • 13:07:53

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk about the Chicago teachers' strike is Lyndsey Layton, reporter with The Washington Post who joins us by telephone. Lyndsey Layton, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:08:04

    MS. LYNDSEY LAYTONWell, thanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 13:08:06

    NNAMDIChicago has the nation's third largest school district. Why are the teachers on strike?

  • 13:08:12

    LAYTONIn a nutshell, well, this has actually been boiling since Rahm Emanuel, who is the former chief of staff to President Obama, ran for mayor last year. On the campaign trail, he promised to extend the school day in Chicago and as you said, it's the third largest school system in the country, but it has one of the shortest school days.

  • 13:08:35

    LAYTONThey have about six hours of school. So Rahm wanted to extend it by 20 percent and the teachers said, you can't do that unilaterally. We need to bargain this and so they sort of got off on the wrong foot from the get-go and it has been building ever since.

  • 13:08:55

    LAYTONAnd Rahm also pushed through a new state law in Illinois that weakens the union's ability to strike and he's been -- he's really drawn a tough line against the teachers' union and they've been pushing back.

  • 13:09:09

    LAYTONAnd as you said, Kojo, a lot of these issues are playing out in cities all around the country, but we haven't seen it boil to a head to the point where they're actually out on strike, the first time in 25 years. You know, that just isn't happening elsewhere. But Chicago right now, it's really gotten to this intense standoff.

  • 13:09:32

    NNAMDIWe're talking about the Chicago teachers' strike with Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post. If you have questions or comments for us, call us at 800-433-8850. Do you see similarities to education reform fights in our region? What do you think about teachers on picket lines? 800-433-8850, you can also send email to kojo@wamu.org

  • 13:09:58

    NNAMDIThis is what Mayor Rahm Emanuel had to say about the showdown, speaking yesterday on the first day of the strike.

  • 13:10:03

    MAYOR RAHM EMANUELI am disappointed that we have come to this point given that even all the other parties acknowledged how close we are because this is a strike of choice. And because of how close we are, it is a strike that is unnecessary. We've asked them to postpone this so we can work out the other issues given how close we are.

  • 13:10:22

    MAYOR RAHM EMANUELAnd the issues are not financial. Remind everybody that there are two other issues as it relates to the evaluation and the ability of principals to have the kind of accountability they need to produce the results they need for our children in the schools.

  • 13:10:37

    NNAMDIThat was Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago arguing that this is not a strike over resources, but a strike over accountability. Lyndsey Layton, I am assuming the teachers' union may be framing this question somewhat differently.

  • 13:10:46

    LAYTONWell, the union, initially, you know, this began in terms of -- this is a fight over money because the city wanted to extend the workday for the teachers. They weren't going to be compensated accordingly and so it started off as a fight about pay.

  • 13:11:07

    LAYTONBut then it really escalated and one of the fiery points here is this teacher evaluation system, which is new in Illinois. The state passed a law last year partially in order to qualify for a Race to the Top grant from the federal government, and they imposed a new teacher evaluation system which takes into account student performances on standardized tests.

  • 13:11:33

    LAYTONSo just like what we've had, what we've got here in D.C. and what a lot of other urban systems are approving. It's this new evaluation system. The union says it's not fair. A lot of their kids are coming from broken homes, who are homeless, you know, who are impoverished and they're not going to do well on these standardized tests and we shouldn't be held accountable.

  • 13:11:56

    LAYTONYou know, we're trying to help these kids. Don't measure our performance by these tests. So that's the union's position. They also -- this is a job security issue. They also want a greater say over what happens to teachers who are laid off because of a school closing. They want those teachers to be able to have first dibs when new positions open up.

  • 13:12:18

    LAYTONSo the fight that began over money for a longer school day has really escalated to these other larger school reform, education reform issues. And there has been a lot of movement especially in the last week.

  • 13:12:33

    LAYTONAnd there's been tremendous pressure on Mayor Emanuel to settle this strike because this is coming at a point in the election season where Emanuel had agreed to step up and help President Obama raise funds and solidify his support among his core constituents, which include labor, of course.

  • 13:12:54

    LAYTONSo this is coming at the worst possible moment for Mayor Emanuel and the Obama administration. And I think that was probably one of the calculations that went into the union's decision to strike because this is a moment that they realize is very important to the other side.

  • 13:13:11

    NNAMDIYou mentioned that the argument that the teachers' union is making has to do with the fact that they would like the consideration of things like circumstances of life and poverty in the children that they're teaching. It seems that there's a fundamental difference between teachers' unions and the education reform movement today, which argues that there are demonstrations that children, regardless of their financial or economic status, can learn and that that is no longer an excuse.

  • 13:13:40

    LAYTONWell, that's true. This is an ongoing debate that's happening, you know, around the country between the reformers and the labor interests. But I will say there -- a lot of these teacher evaluation systems that are being -- that are new and being put in place now around the country, there's no great evidence that shows that any of them truly do capture the performance of a teacher.

  • 13:14:05

    LAYTONA lot of these go into -- or are being put into place and they have to be tweaked or they have to be changed and nobody has the best way to measure good teaching. Nobody has, you know, hit on that magic formula. It's a very difficult thing to, you know, to be able to prove and so the teachers have an argument there.

  • 13:14:28

    LAYTONThey say, you know, this is not evidence-based. There's no track record that this system actually measures good teaching. You could have a fantastic teacher in a classroom who does help some students succeed, but you might have some kids in that classroom who, you know, who don't do well on the tests for various reasons. And should that teacher be held accountable for that? I don't know. It's a point of debate.

  • 13:14:51

    NNAMDIWe were in Charlotte last week for the Democratic National Convention just as this fight was brewing and we spoke with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the parent union of the Chicago Teachers Union. Here's what she had to say about the showdown then.

  • 13:15:06

    MS. RANDI WEINGARTENThe teachers in Chicago are enormously frustrated. It predates Rahm Emanuel. The school system has had total management control since Arne Duncan and others and they have abused it. What the teachers tell us and you see that in the vote, the 98 percent of the teachers in Chicago this summer voted to go on strike.

  • 13:15:31

    MS. RANDI WEINGARTENThat is a sign of enormous frustration that they are not allowed to teach and the community has been supporting them because what's happened in Chicago is, instead of fixing schools, schools get closed. What happens in Chicago is, instead of actually doing the work to get guidance counselors and music and art to schools, schools have been starved for resources. And that's what the teachers have been talking about.

  • 13:15:57

    MS. RANDI WEINGARTENThey accepted the longer day. They wanted it to be a better day. And unfortunately, what Mayor Emanuel did when he first came in is he basically stripped the teachers of a raise that they were about to get. And so at the end of the day, when you keep on disrespecting the people that you need so much in a period of time like this, to help kids, people get very frustrated.

  • 13:16:25

    NNAMDIThat was Randi Weingarten last week before the strike started. Any thoughts about what she had to say, Lyndsey Layton, that this is really something that has been boiling over for a long time, and what you have here are a bunch of just very frustrated teachers.

  • 13:16:39

    LAYTONWell, certainly, you know, I wouldn't disagree with that. I think it takes a long time to build to this point. You know, Emanuel was only just elected last year. But I think the difference is that he came in with a very aggressive take no prisoners approach to -- he wanted to make changes, big changes and wanted to make them fast.

  • 13:17:04

    LAYTONAnd, of course, you know, he's well known for being a little rough around the edges and, you know, I'm putting it mildly. He's, you know, a confrontational, aggressive guy and he came up against a union president, Karen Lewis, she's the president of the local there in Chicago who is equally as aggressive coming from the other perspective. So the two of them got, you know.

  • 13:17:33

    LAYTONTeachers are frustrated with problems all over the country, but Chicago is on strike and you have to wonder, well, part of that must have to do with the players involved and you've got a really aggressive mayor and you've got a really aggressive union leader and so the two of them are, you know, at loggerheads and I think that has something to do with why we're at this point.

  • 13:17:55

    NNAMDISo you're saying, at least in part, this might be a question of attitude that we're looking at in this particular situation. Let me go to Sarah in Waldorf, Md. Sarah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:18:06

    SARAHHi, Kojo, thank you for taking my call.

  • 13:18:09

    NNAMDIYou're welcome, Sarah, go ahead.

  • 13:18:12

    SARAHJust sort of an observation, both as a parent and as somebody who knows a number of people who are teachers at all levels of, you know, elementary through high school education. I think one of the elements that is missing from this confrontation is the fact that teachers are sort of systematically under-appreciated in our society.

  • 13:18:28

    SARAHAs the shepherds of our greatest resource, they're generally underpaid. They're often overworked. They usually have to -- these days, they buy their own materials for their classrooms. I mean, they're certainly under-resourced. And I think that it's hard to talk about the very important issues of educational reform and the ways in which we evaluate teachers and how we fix the problems in the system without recognizing that they give so much and get so little in return.

  • 13:18:57

    NNAMDIWell, you know, Sarah, and Lyndsey Layton you can respond to this, the people who say they are for education reform always start out by praising the overwhelming majority of teachers and then say part of the problem is that they don't ever want to get rid of bad teachers, even though the overwhelming majority are probably excellent teachers.

  • 13:19:14

    LAYTONWell, I think that's true, Kojo, and I think Sarah makes an excellent point and it's interesting when you look at, you know, public opinion surveys. Folks who have kids in schools talk about how great their own, you know, their own teachers are, the teachers in their own children's lives. They love them. They think they're heroes.

  • 13:19:35

    LAYTONBut when you ask them larger questions about teachers at large or teacher unions, you know, they're more critical of, you know, of the unions and of the of teachers, sort of a blanket idea. It's the same thing with Congress. I mean, a lot of people are happy with their individual Congress, members of Congress, but they think Congress, at large, is dysfunctional.

  • 13:19:58

    NNAMDIYeah, teachers' unions -- and thank you for your call, Sarah, are -- this gets to the politics of all of this, are a very important constituency within the Democratic coalition and yet a lot of high profile democrats, mayors like Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, Cory Booker of Newark, N.J. and former Mayor Adrian Fenty here in Washington, D.C. have taken on unions directly. Some people have called this is feud between new Democrats and old labor.

  • 13:20:28

    LAYTONWell, I think there's certainly -- as you said, there are a handful of younger Democratic -- or not even younger -- I'm thinking of Frank Jackson in Cleveland, Tom Menino in Boston and Mayor Villaraigosa in LA., these are Democrats who are breaking with that natural constituency because they feel that public opinion is on their side. Because in many cases they are now in charge of the school systems and they need to show results to parents. And they are trying to push through aggressive reforms, you know, that they think will make a difference.

  • 13:21:14

    LAYTONAnd so I think there's a very interesting internal debate inside the Democratic Party about the unions and about the reforms. And it's a conflict that is raging inside the party. And as you say...

  • 13:21:28

    NNAMDIIndeed when we spoke with Randi Weingarten at the Democratic National Convention she actually thought that that debate was a good thing, that it didn't necessarily represent a major fissure, that it was a debate that should be taking place. But of course the strike in Chicago ups the ante a notch. Chicago is the president's hometown. Current Education Secretary Arno Duncan used to run the school district. The president's former Chief of Staff is the Mayor. Is this going to be a feud that Barack Obama can stay out of?

  • 13:22:00

    LAYTONWell, that's a really excellent question and it is certainly a pickle for the president. I think it depends on how long the strike lasts. If, you know, it's resolved in 72 hours okay, it's over, they'll move on. But if this lags on for any period of time the president is -- I believe he's going to have to -- he'll be drawn into this. And it may start to effect his get-out-the-vote effort because the National Education Association is the country's largest labor union. And the Democrats really depend on them for troops on the ground and for turning out the vote. And you've only got now a couple -- 60 days or less 'til election day.

  • 13:22:47

    LAYTONAnd so the Democrats are really counting on labor to turn people out at the polls. So we'll have to see what happens.

  • 13:22:56

    NNAMDIHere is Tory in Washington, D.C. Tori, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:23:00

    TORIGreat. I just -- thanks, Kojo, for having me. I just wanted to make the point, although I understand why labor unions are formed and the need for them. At the same time it's really frustrating because teachers can't get fired. It's very difficult to fire a teacher. So if they're not performing that's one thing that -- you know, this -- I live in Washington, D.C. and I am -- I feel somewhat forced to send my kids to a private school because you don't know what kind of teacher you're going to get. Some of the teachers in the system have been here forever and you know what? They're not very good.

  • 13:23:36

    TORISome are excellent. I believe in really good pay, really good benefits but you know what? If they're not doing their job well, they need to go. And they can't go easily. And that's what really frustrates me about (unintelligible) .

  • 13:23:49

    NNAMDITori, thank you very much for your call. Lyndsey Layton, to what extent is this dispute in Chicago about the ability to fire teachers?

  • 13:23:57

    LAYTONWell, you know, the teacher evaluation system that they're trying to install there speaks exactly to this, right. So that if you've got a teacher who's not -- who did get the poor evaluation, that person would not receive tenure. That person would be shown the door after a certain period of time. So, I mean, that's one response to this great frustration that many people have about poor teachers and the difficulty of removing teachers who have tenure. So...

  • 13:24:30

    NNAMDIWell, from a long range historical perspective, teacher strikes are not all that rare in Chicago, but they haven't had a labor stoppage in 25 years. I suspect that a lot of people who are sympathetic to the teacher's case may be still taken aback by the idea of a strike.

  • 13:24:47

    LAYTONWell, I think a lot of the parents in Chicago yesterday were taken aback. They didn't -- I don't think a lot of people really expected this to happen because the negotiations have been so intense over the weekend and they had made a lot of headway. And they only got warning a couple of hours before school was to start. So, you know, you've got 400,000 children with no place to go in a city like Chicago. That's -- you know, they need a safe place to spend the day.

  • 13:25:16

    LAYTONAnd so I think a lot of parents initially have been supportive of the union in Chicago, but the longer this drags on I think you're going to start to see some of that public support from parents fray.

  • 13:25:31

    NNAMDILyndsey Layton, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:25:33

    LAYTONThank you, Kojo. Always a pleasure.

  • 13:25:35

    NNAMDILyndsey Layton is a reporter with the Washington Post. She joined us by telephone. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, firecracker wit, fearless pros, Kathleen Turner joins us in studio to discuss her new one-woman show on the life of Texas journalist Molly Ivins. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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