Monday, September 17, 2012

Chicago Teachers v. Rahm Emanuel

September 14, 2012
Harold Meyerson

A Windy City majority supports the teachers, not Rahm.
Read the commentariat, or just subject yourself to the
deafening consensus of enlightened opinion, and you
have to believe that the beleaguered parents of
Chicago's schoolchildren are fuming at their city's
teachers' union, on strike now for a full week, and
backing Mayor Rahm Emanuel's efforts to shape up the
school district.

Read the polls, or just the press accounts of parental
support for the teachers, however, and you come away
with an altogether different impression. A poll
commissioned and released Thursday by Capitol Fax, an
Illinois political report, of 1,344 registered Chicago
voters found that fully 66 percent of parents with
children in the public schools, and 55.5 percent of
Chicagoans overall "approve the Chicago Teachers Union
decision to go on strike." Among African Americans,
strike support stood at 63 percent; among Latinos, 65
percent. (Roughly 80 percent of Chicago's
schoolchildren are minority.)

So, who disapproved of the strike? A majority (52
percent) of parents with children in private schools,
and a majority of whites (also 52 percent).

While most Chicagoans support the strike, a 48 percent
plurality believes that a portion of a teacher's
evaluation should be based on student performance on
standardized tests. And when it comes to fingering
who's responsible for the strike, 29 percent blame the
Teachers Union while 34 percent blame the mayor and 19
percent the school board (meaning, 53 percent blame
management). Among whites, the share blaming the union
rises to 41 percent.

A caveat is in order before we subject these numbers to
interpretation: Strikes that are three days old (which
is when the poll was taken) are sure to have higher
levels of support than strikes that have dragged on for
three weeks or three months. That said, the racial gap
in the polling, which overlaps the gap between parents
with their kids in Chicago public schools and everyone
else, is what leaps out.

Herewith, a couple of suppositions (most neither
supported nor contradicted by any polling data I've
seen) on what's behind these very significant
differences in the ways disparate groups of Chicagoans
interpret the strike. First, the largely minority,
working-class and poor parents who send their children
to the city's schools appreciate both the work that
most of their kids' teachers put into educating their
children and the constraints that those teachers face
in dealing with kids who are growing up in impoverished
neighborhoods and in schools that may lack
air-conditioning and routine supplies. These parents
are likely to see many of their children's schools'
problems, like the problems of their neighborhoods
generally, as stemming from a lack of resources that
beleaguers teachers as well as students. They'd like to
get rid of bad teachers, but they're far likelier to
see teachers as victims than perpetrators in assessing
the shortcomings in their kids' educations.

Second, blacks and Latinos tend to support unions
generally at higher levels than whites (on this point,
there's polling aplenty); they appreciate more than
whites the degree to which unions have contributed to
their material and political advancement. Much of the
black middle class consists of unionized government
employees and teachers, especially in heavily minority
cities like Chicago. When education reformers argue,
then, that weakening teachers' unions would create the
kind of schools that would lead to higher levels of
success among African American students, they are also
arguing that it's necessary to destroy the black middle
class in order to save it. Strike opposition in the
polling rises in direct relation to how far from the
city's public-school population the respondents are.
The poll didn't break out any results by income level,
though the gap between private- and public-school
parents must also be to some degree a gap between
parental incomes. (The fact that more than 80 percent
of the city's public school students are eligible for
free meals makes this obvious as well.) Genuinely
affluent, professional parents surely have greater
familiarity with excellent schools than most
working-class and poor parents do. In pondering the
reasons for the shortcomings of public schools, it's
probably easier for them to blame teachers with whom
they have no contact than it is for parents of those
teachers' students who see the institutional and
funding limits within which those teachers work.

The chief takeaway from this poll is that the
anti-union education-reform movement doesn't extend to
most parents of children in unionized public schools.
So long as this movement persists in its anti-union
jihad, even as America's children become increasingly
minority, education reform may condemn itself to
remaining a movement of the white upper-middle class.
The voting breakdown in the 2011 Washington, D.C.,
mayoral election between the defeated incumbent Adrian
Fenty, who, with overwhelming white establishment
support, backed school chief Michelle Rhee in her war
on the city's teachers' union, and the victorious
challenger Vincent Gray, who won a clear majority of
black voters, tells the same story as that in this poll
of Chicago voters. Confined by its ideological
suppositions to the white professional ghetto, the
education-reform movement, powerful though it may be,
will repeatedly subvert itself in its efforts to
transform America's schools.
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