An Interview with Oscar Weil: The Teachers Strike in Chicago—But Does the Union REALLY Represent Them?

Sep 18, 2012 by

Oscar Weil former executive director of the Illinois Federation of Teachers

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Oscar, as you know, the teachers are on strike in Chicago- your initial reaction?

All people who understand the vital work that teachers do in trying valiantly to prepare the nation’s children for a successful life must be pleased that the Chicago Teachers Union has decided to get off the defensive and defend the teachers from attacks by politicians and school managers who have no direct responsibilities for dealing with classroom conditions in Chicago’s schools. Teachers have been under attack from politicians of every stripe, including presidential candidate Romney and President Obama, who talked about the problem of “bad” teachers in a presidential address.

The new Chicago mayor Emanuel injected himself into the middle of recent negotiations for a new union contract, as though he, who has spent much of his life in Washington, D.C., knows more about how to make education better than professional managers and teachers who have spent their lives helping young people prepare to be successful citizens and parents for the next generation.

I have closely observed how support for Illinois public schools has shrunk for 30 years, from 48% of the total cost of public education in the 1970s to around 30%. As a result, school programs such as transportation, art, music, physical education, especially in elementary schools, library services, school counselors, and even early childhood education are threatened. Class sizes have long ago become unmanageable.

I recently talked to an English teacher who had been assigned a class of 33 students, and that is not unusual. Politicians now would have you believe they can improve education without raising taxes. President Reagan turned the country away from progressive income taxes in the 1980s, causing schools, state colleges and universities, and other human services to suffer ever since. School boards and other politicians have tried to fill the financial gap by raising regressive taxes like property taxes; sales taxes; license fees and many other kinds of fees; even government-sponsored gambling, like the lottery, casinos, and slot machines. Before Reagan, “ability to pay” was a maxim that most people generally believed should be applied to the nation’s tax system. That term was retired by Reagan and is seldom heard, even from the few remaining “progressives.” Meanwhile, the nation has fought two major wars while slashing income taxes for the most wealthy among us, facilitating a major redistribution of wealth from the bottom of the economic ladder to the top. Public education of all kinds has sunk on the ladder of priorities to a point where it will take a major shift in priorities, as well as a major change in how politicians raise money to pay for services like education..

It is gratifying to see teachers, who, as a group, perform arguably the most valuable work in our democratic society, decide to bear—along with their students and their parents–the pain of a strike in an effort to communicate to the citizens of Chicago and the nation the nature and extent of the city’s education problems.

2. Now, money is always nice, but let’s talk working conditions- what seems to be the issue?

I have already alluded to the most important problem of working conditions—class sizes. Many years ago our union made reductions in class sizes a top priority. For example, we established 20 as a target in lower grades. Teachers as a group should determine class sizes appropriate to their subjects. I know no school managers who confer with teachers as to what is an acceptable size. It seems just to be assumed that teachers will adjust to however many students appear in their classes. The issue is negotiable in Chicago, and we can only hope some progress will be made in the contract to establish a more manageable size. There will not be enough money to make a lot of progress this year, and that is one reason why I hope the union is able to limit the term of the contract so class sizes can be renegotiated again very soon. I believe improved working conditions is a goal equal to any other priority of the Chicago Teachers Union.

3. Now, let’s talk about these evaluations and how they are tied into this mess—what’s the scoop?

I do not know all the issues related to evaluation of teachers in Chicago, but I know that the attempt to link student test scores to evaluations of teachers– a major demand of the mayor and the board–is incredibly primitive because of the multitude of factors beyond teachers’ control or even influence. Suffice to say it is an attempt to begin the regimentation of teachers and students. George Orwell must be grinning at the effort to reduce the art of teaching to a numerical value.

4) Years ago, I did some research on merit pay—it was never published- but I remember the results- when I asked teachers REALLY what they wanted- they were clear—they wanted the discipline and behavior problems removed from their classes–fair request? Unfair? Not going to happen?

Merit pay will remain an issue in education, though most teachers are opposed for similar reasons that they oppose linking test scores and evaluations.

It is true that the inability of a teacher to manage discipline problems is the main reason for failure. I believe a teacher should have authority to have students who are chronically disruptive expelled from their classes. I once lobbied a legislative bill to passage stage but the bill failed to pass because administrator and school board organizations were opposed. My bill would have given a teacher authority to expel a student from her class for being disruptive, with a provision for review and a hearing by request of a parent or guardian.

While behavior problems are a major problem for many teachers, school managers have been opposed to increasing authority of teachers to deal with the problem in any definitive way. I have had so much experience with teachers who had trouble dealing with discipline that I think it must be dealt with in bargaining union contracts.

5) Often teachers talk to me about “ inappropriate placements” – a student with a 30 I.Q. in the algebra class- Does this enter into the equation?

Since federal law requires appropriate placement of someone with a “30 IQ, placing a student of that kind in an algebra class would seem to violate the law, though I have also been told that inappropriate temporary placement frequently occurs because of inadequate or inefficient procedures in schools. I believe such cases should be handled as grievances if delays in appropriate placement occur and are a problem for teachers. It could be that classroom teachers are reluctant to use grievance procedures in such cases, as they are in other violations of contracts. Teachers must take responsibility to see that provisions of contracts and law are followed.

6) Let’s talk pensions—perhaps some sleazy politician made some promises years ago—should Mayor Rahm Immanuel be held to promises made ten years ago?

Pension benefits are fixed by law through a legislative process for all public employees in Illinois, not by any individual politician.

There is no doubt but that the legislators and governors blatantly violated the law so far as funding is concerned. Employees’ contributions to pension funds are deducted automatically, like social security contributions, and paid into the funds, with the assumption the public employers will pay a share determined by the pension laws and the constitution. There is no doubt but that the legislators and governors blatantly violated the law so far as funding is concerned. The IFT sued the state while I was its executive director in the 1970s, and a settlement was reached calling for a schedule of payments that would have fixed the unfunded liability problem. When the governor vetoed the appropriation, I sued him; but the Illinois Supreme Court said it could not give us relief because it was a legislative problem and not within the aegis of the court.

7) Teachers spend about 4 years in college and I don’t know how much money getting their degrees. Should this not be recognized somewhere, somehow?

Some years ago there were teaching scholarships given to high school students who were deserving prospective teachers, but in recent years the state has not actively recruited prospective teachers, a major failing that I have addressed elsewhere. I have read recently that prospective teachers fall now in the lower third of their high school classes academically. I think the subject deserves publicity, along with efforts to provide incentive for high school students who are inclined to become teachers. It is no mystery why there is not a flood of students seeking to become teachers. I have a grand daughter who, like her mother, was attracted to teaching, but is now a second-year law student. She has been recruited by law firms to work during the summer—a couple of months– before her third year for $30,000. That is about the annual starting salary for most teachers.

8) Bottom line question- are the unions really representing the teachers and trying to get the teachers what they want, or is this just a political game?

Teachers’ unions are democratic, and have very active and forceful representative bodies. The term “union boss” is a myth. Over 90% of Chicago teachers voted to strike. I led the Illinois Federation of Teachers in the 1960s and 70s in many strikes, often while under court injunctions and the threat of being jailed. Believe me when I say that the union had to be democratic to an extreme and could not have survived except for the principle all for one and one for all.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

Based on past experience, especially in the 1970s when Illinois established a progressive public school support program based on student attendance and called the “revenue equalizer,” with the added factor of weighting attendance of low income students, great progress was made toward equalizing educational opportunity in public schools. But neglect of the system after the states’ leaders followed President Reagan’s lead on taxes beginning in the 1980s and continuing to this day has created a large deficit that probably cannot be made up quickly. The Chicago school district, being by far the largest in the state, will need a large infusion of both money from the state of Illinois and the city. Only political pressure of a major kind from the citizens of the city and the teachers, in combination with the rest of the state’s citizens and teachers, can solve the problem for all schools in the state. In the epilogue to my book, Teachers beyond the law, I have described the need and the potential for such an effort.

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