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Editorial: Chicago teachers dispute strikes chord in New York

Public school teachers picket outside Amundsen High School

Public school teachers picket outside Amundsen High School on the first day of a strike by the Chicago Teachers Union. (Sept. 10, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

When enemies oppose you, the tendency can be to dismiss it. When friends oppose you, attention must be paid.

That's the situation public-sector labor unions now find themselves in, as evidenced by the drama playing out in the streets of Chicago, and echoing in the schools of New York.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is the point man in the fight against the Chicago Teachers Union, and its more than 25,000 members, that led to the current strike. Emanuel, formerly the White House chief of staff, is doing his part to bring to fruition "Race to the Top," a plan crafted by his fellow Chicagoans, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. This is a city where only 56 percent of the students graduate high school, only 6 percent graduate college by age 25, and, in 2007, 99.7 percent of the teachers were evaluated as either "satisfactory" or "distinguished." Dramatic changes are clearly called for.

When a prominent Democratic trio like this demands systemic change from unions, it sends a far different message than opposition from a Republican like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker does. Walker and his brethren would just as soon squash these unions. Emanuel wants to lead them toward a sustainable path, and away from their own demise.

The same can be said in New York of Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's battle with teachers and other public-service unions. He's pro-labor, but can no longer stand up for labor's outrageous demands and still hope to make the government he oversees work.

What the Chicago Teachers Union wants is comically out of step with that city's finances and mood. Chicago teachers are the highest paid in any big city in the country, averaging $76,000 per year, but want a 29 percent raise over the next two years. Even what the district is offering -- 16 percent over four years, between raises and seniority increases -- sounds high to anyone in the private sector.

But in Chicago (and New York) the issue in schools isn't so much pay as reform. What teachers are fighting is longer school days, changes that could cost them guaranteed lifetime jobs regardless of performance, and methods of evaluation that include student-achievement metrics.

In response to the Emanuel/Obama/Duncan vision, the Chicago Teachers Union has drafted its own 55-page reform plan. Massive decreases in class size, more physical education and arts instruction, more support services (psychologists, social workers and the like), and full day kindergarten are priced out at a tidy $713 million per year, for a school system already slated to run deficits of $3 billion over the next three years. Not priced out are the union's other, really expensive suggestions: sharp increases in special education staffing and bilingual education staffing, more teaching assistants, and pay increases to see that teachers are compensated as well as "comparable" professionals.

Big-government Democrats can't afford to stand with public-service unions any more, particularly in the schools, because their demands have made big government unworkable and unaffordable. These unions, if they want to survive, had better listen to the Cuomos and Emanuels. If they don't, they'll face more and more Walkers instead.