Andrew B. WilsonJames V. Shuls

Who “won” the just-ended Chicago school strike and what are the implications for other large urban districts, including Kansas City Public Schools, where thousands of students are similarly trapped in failing schools?

The Chicago school strike came down to a bruising battle between two flamboyant and abrasive public figures: Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis.

With Chicago’s 26,000 public school teachers returning to work on Sept. 19, it is clear that there is no real winner in this dispute — not the union, not the mayor, and, most especially, not the students and their parents.

There were concessions on both sides in the battle between the mayor and the Chicago teachers’ union, with a final agreement on watered-down changes in teacher evaluation that may make it somewhat easier to remove low-performing teachers. While winning another round of pay increases (on top of average annual pay per teacher of $71,000 for a nine-month year), the union agreed to a longer school day, and it agreed to limit the number of sick days that teachers can “bank” as a future benefit upon retirement.

All that amounts to tinkering at the edges of a failing system. “Beyond this contract is a larger reality,” the Chicago Tribune noted in an editorial. “This school system faces declining enrollment and rising expenses. CPS needs to find a sustainable financial footing. This contract doesn’t help much.”

Kansas City public schools are facing the same bleak reality, as public school enrollment in the city has declined by roughly 35 percent in the past five years while expenditures per pupil have increased to more than $14,000 — far exceeding per pupil costs in most suburban schools. Further, just as in Chicago, Kansas City schools have an extraordinarily high dropout rate, with only about half of high school students graduating within four years.

It is hardly surprising that strong teachers’ unions in large school districts with multiple failing schools will do everything possible to maintain their jobs and to increase their benefits. But that is exactly what makes major reform from within these same school districts a near-impossible task. Reform — if it is to happen — will have to come from the outside, through increased competition and choice.

As things stand today in most large public school districts, including Kansas City and Chicago (both before and after the strike), it remains the case a) that teachers will only be fired for egregious misconduct; b) that when districts reduce staff for budgetary reasons, the most senior teachers stay on the job regardless of their fitness as teachers; and c) principals and others in positions of supposed authority are extremely limited in their ability to reward their best teachers through any kind of pay-for-performance system.

Highly unionized public school districts — where many teachers have understandably grown to feel that they are entitled to hold on to their jobs even though many of their students are failing to learn — need the spur of competition.

Still more, it is a tragedy that so many students and parents in city centers such as Kansas City and Chicago are trapped in schools that are not working. They deserve to be given a choice — and that is something that elected officials at the local and state levels must finally begin to recognize and rally around as a cause for action.

The Show-Me Institute has long called for a major expansion in charter schools to create a real alternative to today’s failing public schools.

Some educators are calling for greater “COOP-ETITION,” meaning a joining together of the traditional public school education with a big increase in the number of charter schools (mostly non-unionized and free from most regulation governing public schools).

We say: Bring it on!

Andrew B. Wilson is resident fellow and senior writer and James V. Shuls is education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.

About the Author

Andrew Wilson
Fellow and Senior Writer

A former foreign correspondent who spent four years in the Middle East and served as Business Week’s London bureau chief during Margaret Thatcher’s first two terms as Britain’s prime minister, Andrew is a regular contributor to leading national publications, including the American Spectator, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal.

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.