The Chicago teachers’ strike may seem to be a distant and mostly insignificant event in South Carolina, a right-to-work state, but it matters a great deal for public education in our state.
The national discussion of public education and education reform has painted union influence with a broad brush that is simplistic, as this influence varies from state to state. Further, the facts challenge the negative portrayal of teachers’ unions found in pop culture such as the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’” and the motion picture “Don’t Back Down.”
The fact is that states with strong unions tend to have higher student test scores than states, such as South Carolina, that are non-union. Of course, that’s because there is a strong correlation between unionization, poverty and student test scores. That’s because test scores remain primarily a function of poverty and affluence. In other words, unionized states tend to be more affluent and non-union states tend to be high-poverty.
We must look beyond the union element and recognize that urban teachers in Chicago share with South Carolina the burden of poverty that is reflected in measurable student outcomes.
Next, the Chicago teachers’ strike must be recognized as a workers’ strike. Although South Carolina does not share the direct union influence on workers’ conditions and rights with Chicago, ours is primarily a state of workers. In education, we must not ignore that teachers are workers and that teaching conditions are student learning conditions.
Most importantly, the strike challenges education reform that is being promoted here in South Carolina without the same mechanisms for resistance that are available for unionized teachers.
About three decades ago, states began implementing top-down school accountability policies that have been further reinforced by the federal government in the past decade through No Child Left Behind. The central problem with the accountability era has been that these polices are not based on valid research and have not produced positive results.
Yet, in Chicago, South Carolina and all across the United States, political leaders of both major parties are erasing teacher professionalism through mandated standards, holding teachers accountable for outcomes beyond their control (standardized test scores of both their own students and students whom teachers do not even teach) and promoting experiments (such as charter schools and Teach for America) that do not produce better outcomes but do perpetuate the exact problems we claim to be fighting — notably segregating schools and providing the students who need schools most the worst possible educations.
To discount and stereotype the teachers’ strike based on South Carolina’s historical rejection of unions is to ignore key issues facing all workers in our state, as well as the future of public education.
If we believe in the power of public schools, we must support social policy that addresses childhood poverty — notably food insecurity, health and eye care, prenatal care and stable work for all families.
If we want to hold our schools and teachers accountable for the best education we can offer to all children regardless of their backgrounds, we must reject top-down education policy created by political leaders with no experience or expertise in education — notably rejecting Common Core State Standards, teacher evaluations linked to test scores, the expansion of charter schools and the hiring of Teach for America core members.
While union bureaucracy often deserves challenges from within and outside unionized states, erasing teacher professionalism and silencing teachers’ voices do not serve the needs of teachers, students or the public in South Carolina, where people living in poverty, the working poor, the working class and the middle class share burdens not experienced by the political leadership ignoring those realities.
Teachers are American workers, and few things should matter more to South Carolinians than the power and voices of American workers.