Chicago Chooses Sides

Read the commentariat, or just subject yourself to the deafening consensus of enlightened opinion, and you have to believe that the beleaguered parents of Chicago’s schoolchildren are fuming at their city’s teachers' union, on strike now for a full week, and backing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to shape up the school district.

Read the polls, or just the press accounts of parental support for the teachers, however, and you come away with an altogether different impression. A poll commissioned and released Thursday by Capitol Fax, an Illinois political report, of 1,344 registered Chicago voters found that fully 66 percent of parents with children in the public schools, and 55.5 percent of Chicagoans overall “approve the Chicago Teachers Union decision to go on strike.” Among African Americans, strike support stood at 63 percent; among Latinos, 65 percent. (Roughly 80 percent of Chicago’s schoolchildren are minority.)

So, who disapproved of the strike? A majority (52 percent) of parents with children in private schools, and a majority of whites (also 52 percent).

While most Chicagoans support the strike, a 48 percent plurality believes that a portion of a teacher’s evaluation should be based on student performance on standardized tests. And when it comes to fingering who’s responsible for the strike, 29 percent blame the Teachers Union while 34 percent blame the mayor and 19 percent the school board (meaning, 53 percent blame management). Among whites, the share blaming the union rises to 41 percent.

A caveat is in order before we subject these numbers to interpretation: Strikes that are three days old (which is when the poll was taken) are sure to have higher levels of support than strikes that have dragged on for three weeks or three months. That said, the racial gap in the polling, which overlaps the gap between parents with their kids in Chicago public schools and everyone else, is what leaps out.

Herewith, a couple of suppositions (most neither supported nor contradicted by any polling data I’ve seen) on what’s behind these very significant differences in the ways disparate groups of Chicagoans interpret the strike. First, the largely minority, working-class and poor parents who send their children to the city’s schools appreciate both the work that most of their kids’ teachers put into educating their children and the constraints that those teachers face in dealing with kids who are growing up in impoverished neighborhoods and in schools that may lack air-conditioning and routine supplies. These parents are likely to see many of their children’s schools’ problems, like the problems of their neighborhoods generally, as stemming from a lack of resources that beleaguers teachers as well as students. They’d like to get rid of bad teachers, but they’re far likelier to see teachers as victims than perpetrators in assessing the shortcomings in their kids’ educations.

Second, blacks and Latinos tend to support unions generally at higher levels than whites (on this point, there’s polling aplenty); they appreciate more than whites the degree to which unions have contributed to their material and political advancement. Much of the black middle class consists of unionized government employees and teachers, especially in heavily minority cities like Chicago. When education reformers argue, then, that weakening teachers' unions would create the kind of schools that would lead to higher levels of success among African American students, they are also arguing that it’s necessary to destroy the black middle class in order to save it. Strike opposition in the polling rises in direct relation to how far from the city’s public-school population the respondents are. The poll didn’t break out any results by income level, though the gap between private- and public-school parents must also be to some degree a gap between parental incomes. (The fact that more than 80 percent of the city’s public school students are eligible for free meals makes this obvious as well.) Genuinely affluent, professional parents surely have greater familiarity with excellent schools than most working-class and poor parents do. In pondering the reasons for the shortcomings of public schools, it’s probably easier for them to blame teachers with whom they have no contact than it is for parents of those teachers’ students who see the institutional and funding limits within which those teachers work.

The chief takeaway from this poll is that the anti-union education-reform movement doesn’t extend to most parents of children in unionized public schools. So long as this movement persists in its anti-union jihad, even as America’s children become increasingly minority, education reform may condemn itself to remaining a movement of the white upper-middle class. The voting breakdown in the 2011 Washington, D.C., mayoral election between the defeated incumbent Adrian Fenty, who, with overwhelming white establishment support, backed school chief Michelle Rhee in her war on the city’s teachers’ union, and the victorious challenger Vincent Gray, who won a clear majority of black voters, tells the same story as that in this poll of Chicago voters. Confined by its ideological suppositions to the white professional ghetto, the education-reform movement, powerful though it may be, will repeatedly subvert itself in its efforts to transform America’s schools.

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