Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Chicago teachers' strike is a test for Democrats

By William Bennett, CNN Contributor
September 13, 2012 -- Updated 1418 GMT (2218 HKT)
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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT