Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

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.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT