Teachers Have to Be Able to Strike

Urban educators have it rough. Do we really want to pay them less too?

This week, the War on Teachers continued. Teachers in Chicago, the third-largest school district in the country with 350,000 students, went on strike this week for the first time in 25 years after negotiators failed to reach an agreement. Among the disputed issues were performance evaluations based partly on students’ standardized test scores and whether laid-off teachers would have priority for job openings districtwide. Progress has been made, and the parties are close to settling according to media reports, but the strike became a political football for Republicans who love to kick the teachers’ unions around.

Although Chicago has a Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel, it’s the Republicans who have made the strike a national political issue by criticizing the Chicago public school teachers and their union. Politically, it plays right into the Republicans’ hands, who have demonized teachers on a regular basis. On Monday, Mitt Romney claimed that the striking teachers were turning their backs on thousands of students. In a statement issued by his campaign, Romney said, “Teachers’ unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet.”

In recent years, Republicans have targeted public employee unions, especially teachers. Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker had to face a recall vote after the Republican-controlled state legislature enacted legislation that eliminated most of the public employees’ collective bargaining rights. During the Republican Convention, many speakers, including Chris Christie, criticized teachers unions.

It’s remarkable that teachers and their unions are demonized. Our society doesn’t value and respect teachers as we should. If it weren’t for teachers unions, many public school teachers would be paid around $30,000 a year as educators at most private and religious elementary and high schools are. According to the National Center for Education statistics, in 2007–08, the average annual base salary of regular full-time public school teachers ($49,600) was higher than the average annual base salary of regular full-time private school teachers ($36,300).

Basing teacher evaluations on student performance on standardized tests is unfair in light of the difficulties in teaching in an urban school, where there are so many obstacles and distractions, including poverty, violence, dropout rates, kids with learning disabilities, and homelessness. Many kids in urban schools are far behind educationally, emotionally and socially.

There is a huge problem with absenteeism. How can you teach kids when they don’t show up to class? There is often lack of parental control or lack of parental interest as to whether their kids go to school. Many single parents have to focus on work and can’t spend enough time with their kids. Teachers and students are often physically threatened, assaulted or verbally abused. Sometimes teachers have to teach kids who should have failed a grade, but are passed through.

In class, the atmosphere often isn’t conducive to learning. For the most part, the kids aren’t motivated to succeed. The class sizes are too big, and it’s difficult to teach kids with varied skill levels. Instead of peer pressure to succeed, there is often peer pressure to fail or not to try or care. Kids who want to learn have the deck stacked against them.

There are lack of funds, as teachers often need to spend their own money for school supplies. Many of the schools don’t have air conditioning. Sometimes, the school can’t afford to buy books. School districts are closing schools and laying off teachers while expanding charter schools, which attract the better public school kids, thus leaving the poor performing ones behind.

If it weren’t for teachers’ unions, teachers would be paid poorly, be thrown from school to school, face unlimited class sizes, have medical benefits severely slashed, and rarely get pay increases.

There is never a good time to have a teachers’ strike, but sometimes it’s a necessary last resort for teachers. No doubt, the kids and their parents suffer. Some people feel that teachers should be treated like air-traffic controllers, who are not allowed to strike. But if they could never strike, teachers wouldn’t have a voice and would be exploited. The school administration could do whatever they wanted.

The few people who actually watched Tony Danza’s short-lived reality show Teach got a fairly realistic look at how difficult it can be to teach in a city public school. Almost every episode, you could get a sense of how frustrated and discouraged Danza would get. And this was at Northeast High School, which is one of the better Philadelphia public schools. Danza, who wrote a new book, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High, told the New York Daily News this week, “There are very few things that are harder than being a teacher in any public school in America. It’s a job that requires total commitment at the expense of just about everything else in your life.”

To their credit, the people of Chicago seem to be supporting the teachers, as some parents have been marching on the picket lines alongside teachers. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, a poll of Chicago voters showed 47 percent supporting the teachers union, 39 percent against the strike, and the rest uncommitted.

It’s fair to debate the merits of how to resolve a teachers strike, but it’s out of line to demonize teachers and the unions that represent them and throw them under the school bus. To paraphrase Pink Floyd, “Hey, Republicans, leave them teachers alone.”

Larry Atkins, a lawyer and a journalist, teaches journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University. He has written for the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Huffington Post, NPR, Philadelphia Inquirer, and others.