Opinion: Education a Test of Wills in Chicago

Marion Herbert's picture
Thursday, July 5, 2012

The title of the nation’s largest labor union — the National Education Association — seems calculated to blur the fact that it is a teachers union. In this blunt city, however, the teachers union candidly calls itself the Chicago Teachers Union.

Its office is in the Merchandise Mart, a gigantic architectural Stonehenge, which resembles a fortress located on the Chicago River, which resembles a moat. Which is appropriate.

Unions are besieged, especially public-sector unions, particularly teachers unions, and nowhere more than here. Teachers unions have been bombarded with bad publicity, much of it earned, including the movie “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” and have courted trouble by cashing in on sentimentality, cloaking every acquisitive demand in gauzy rhetoric about how everything is “for the children.”

Still, have sympathy for Karen Lewis, 58, a Dartmouth graduate who is a daughter of two African-American teachers. She taught chemistry for 22 years until becoming president of the 26,502-member CTU. Her job is to make life better for her members, not to make life easier for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with his roughneck’s reputation and stevedore’s profanity, whose ideas are as admirable as his manners are deplorable.

He thinks that improved schools, including more charter schools, might arrest the exodus to the suburbs of parents whose children are ready for high school, so he wants a longer school year and school day. America’s school year (about 180 days) is one of the shortest in the industrial world, and while middle-class children may leaven their summers with strolls through the Louvre, less privileged children experience “summer learning loss.” Remediation requires the first few weeks of the fall term, which effectively further shortens the school year. And Chicago’s school day is the shortest of any large American district.

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