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Chicago teachers' strike is a test for Democrats

By William Bennett, CNN Contributor
updated 10:18 AM EDT, Thu September 13, 2012
Chicago public school teachers march through the Loop and in front of the Chicago Public Schools building on September 10.
Chicago public school teachers march through the Loop and in front of the Chicago Public Schools building on September 10.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Bennett: Chicago teachers last went on strike in 1987, and schools were a mess
  • Little has improved, he says. Dropout rate near 40%; students not proficient in math or reading
  • Teachers reject 16% raise over 4 years despite system's $665 million debt, he writes
  • Bennett: Democrats should back Emanuel in his bid to curtail teachers union

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- Before this week, the last time the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike was September 8, 1987. It lasted until October 3, during which officials, teachers and parents clashed in the city's longest teachers strike ever. After it ended, I called the Chicago school system the worst in the country.

"I'm not sure there's a system as bad as the Chicago system" were my exact words as U.S. secretary of education.

The Chicago school system was a failure. Half of Chicago's 64 public high schools scored in the bottom 1% of schools on the ACT, an old metric used by many colleges for admissions.

''Forty-six percent of Chicago teachers send their children to private schools,'' I noted then, too. ''The people who know the product best send their children elsewhere.''

In spite of this, the teachers union had the gall to demand a 10% raise with a 5% raise to follow the next year. After a month of jawing, they eventually wrangled a 4% raise the first year, with the second year determined by funding from elsewhere.

William Bennett
William Bennett

Twenty-five years later, and in the midst of another teachers strike, it doesn't look like much has improved in Chicago.

Today, the 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union are on strike because they can't accept a 16% raise over four years, tougher testing and accountability standards, and non-automatic rehiring.

Chicago teachers want Obama's support
Chicago teachers strike continues
Chicago teacher speaks from picket line
Strike won't keep athletes from practice

Once again, the Chicago Teachers Union is showing its true colors: self-serving public sector bullies more interested in their well-being than the well-being of students.

Consider that public school teachers in Chicago make an average of $71,000 a year, while a majority of the roughly 350,000 public school students, overwhelmingly minority students, receive free or discounted school meals, meaning they are at or near the poverty line.

What do these well-paid teachers bestow on the poor children and families of Chicago? Nearly 80% of eighth-graders in Chicago public schools are not proficient in reading or math, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In fact, little has improved in Chicago since the 1987 strike. Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times points out that "In 1987, 43% of incoming Chicago freshmen would drop out of high school without graduating. Today's drop-out rate is 39.4%, the lowest it has ever been."

A dropout rate of nearly four students in 10 is a national disgrace. For 25 years, Chicago's teachers' unions have held the city's parents and students hostage while morally and financially bankrupting the city. Chicago public schools are $665 million in debt, and that debt is expected to exceed $1 billion next year. For 25 years, the union has blocked and impeded educational progress. The time for change is long overdue.

For decades, conservative education reformers like myself have been pushing for performance pay, strict accountability, flexible rehiring practices for school principals and longer school days to improve our public schools. Now, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, through the Race to the Top grant requirements, are trying to implement similar measures in Chicago's public schools. Duncan, whom I sometimes agree with, and Emanuel, whom I almost never agree with, both seem to be taking the traditionally conservative side of this issue.

We have in Chicago a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. Will Emanuel and Duncan succeed in curtailing the long-term ally and bulwark of the Democratic Party, the teachers union, or will the Chicago Teachers Union and its leader, Karen Lewis, once again strong-arm their own party for their own interests?

A teacher's view from the picket lines

President Obama has been noticeably silent. He shouldn't be. The nation deserves to know whether his allegiances lie with his political allies in the public sector unions or with Emanuel and Duncan. This power struggle will reveal much about the constitution of the modern Democratic Party.

If Emanuel wins, the effects would be felt throughout the large, predominantly Democratic inner-city school districts across the country. For one of the first times in recent history, Democrats would stand up to their own entrenched inner-city public sector teachers unions. Should Emanuel lose, teachers unions will grow only stronger and more brazen, and the city of Chicago and its children and families may be set back for another 25 years.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Bennett.

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