Union Blues

To the editor:

I’d be more sympathetic to the arguments against the California Teachers Association [Troy Senik, “The Worst Union in America,” Spring 2012] if it weren’t for the fact that the real reason the Right is trying to destroy unions is to reduce or eliminate political contributions to Democrats, not because they care about the education system. Conservatives had the chance to get money out of politics with McCain-Feingold—thereby reducing any justification for unions to spend all that money on politics—but they fought it and gutted it and persuaded Justice Roberts to rule for Citizens United. The Right doesn’t want money out of politics; it just wants Democratic money, which comes primarily from unions, out of politics.

James Marshall
Sacramento, CA

To the editor:

This is a biased piece trashing the union and teachers. I can’t speak for the entire state, but having worked with Rosa Parks Elementary in San Francisco, I know that balanced budgets and teachers’ and students’ performance matter a lot. And what’s this about not allowing layoffs? Every year, teachers, principals, and administrators receive pink slips. The practice of layoffs and rehiring based upon seniority is well documented in the press.

Overall, I’ve been blown away by the quality and professionalism of the Rosa Parks staff. They do a lot with limited resources. Together with parents, we have a fantastic school that makes improvements every day. And we’re not alone: the media have documented the stories of formerly poor-performing schools that have become much in demand.

The problem with the author’s solution is that it lacks detail. It’s fine to say that competition makes things better—in this case, competition between charter schools and regular public schools. But charter schools are no magic bullet; some have had success, and some haven’t. What matters are teachers and proven programs. I’m all for finding, nurturing, and investing in teachers, not trashing them, as the author does.

Paul Van Cleave
San Francisco, CA

To the editor:

I suggest that you look into the other group of union workers in the school districts—the service-employee unions, which include janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and teachers’ aides. Usually, noncertified employees have a separate union, and these are the unions that are more likely to sway a local school-board election, not the teachers. Senik targets teachers while leaving the other unions in the school district out of the discussion, leading me to believe that it’s all part of the conservative war on women. They take aim at the one public union that has a majority of female members, leaving out the others.

James Sute
Brownstown Township, MI

Troy Senik responds:

James Marshall fails to make a key distinction about money in politics. Though I disagree with most of the public-policy aims of unions, I don’t begrudge them their right to have their voices heard in the political process, a foundational freedom essential to representative democracy. What I do resent is the CTA’s ability to collect the money it uses for these activities through coercion, requiring dues of members who are essentially forced to join the union and then using those funds for political expenditures—many of which cut against the beliefs of the membership—without the approval of the dues payers.

Paul Van Cleave’s letter begins by conflating teachers and the union, a tactic frequently employed by the CTA (unlike the CTA, however, he seems to be doing so in earnest). As the son of a former California teacher, I need no convincing that many Golden State teachers are dedicated, hardworking, and committed to their students. And while the school where Mr. Van Cleave has worked may be in fine shape (and California has many fine public schools), one anecdote is not sufficient to refute statewide data.

The CTA often acts against the interests of the state’s best teachers, as in the case of the seniority-based layoffs that Mr. Van Cleave references, which substitute longevity for talent as the key metric for dismissal. At the same time, the union buttresses the worst teachers by making it almost impossible to fire underperforming educators. His letter confuses the inability to fire teachers with the inability to lay them off, which are separate issues.

As for the criticism that charter schools “are no magic bullet,” I concur but note that neither is anything else. Charter schools allow experimentation, which, by definition, will sometimes involve failure. Abandoning charter schools because some of them fail is like abandoning capitalism because some companies go out of business.

James Sute offers no real rebuttal to my arguments, just an argument about other unions beyond the scope of my piece. The point remains that it is the teachers’ union that has the strongest influence on policy regarding teachers. As for the “war on women” allegation, I will only note that those who go looking for subtextual bigotry, like those who go looking for Bigfoot, have a remarkable capacity to see what they want to see.

That Tottering Town

To the editor:
Despite its current rough patch, Chicago is still a global city, no matter how much Aaron Renn denies it [“The Second-Rate City,” Spring 2012]. The fact that Chicago doesn’t have a single “it” industry is its calling card. The city is good at many things but not an expert at any one thing. It’s the country’s transportation hub, a global business and financial center, a manufacturing power, an education center, a cultural center, a convention center, a restaurant destination, and a huge tourist attraction. That’s why Chicago was said to have the most balanced economy in the country before the Great Recession.

It is ironic that Renn praises the city’s 1990s growth and prosperity—when corruption was at its worst and the murder rate at its highest—but now that the city has hit some turbulence, he predicts its demise. Though many don’t realize it, the city is better off today than it was in the nineties. Once the recession is over, Chicago will be back, firing on all cylinders.


To the editor:

What, no mention of the roving gangs and daily shoot-outs?

Larry Fogarty
Seattle, WA

Aaron Renn responds:

Chicago suffers from many ills—not only crime but also poor schools and segregation—that I didn’t mention. These are major problems, yes, but they weren’t the focus of my article.

Chicago also has many strengths, and in many ways it is a global city. But the global-city aspect of Chicago is simply too small to carry the whole city and region in the way that New York, London, and Hong Kong can sustain their regions. Chicago’s delusion is that it can focus on its current strengths and global-city attributes, pretending that if it gets these right, everything will be fine. The data clearly show that this strategy is failing.

As for diversity, it has its advantages, but if you listen to Chicago’s own leaders, they clearly aspire to specialization. What is the initiative to become a high-tech hub other than an attempt to have a greater than expected concentration of tech firms—that is, to be specialized? Similarly, the city’s own economic-development strategy is rooted in clusters: industries for which Chicago does have some degree of specialization.

Chicago is nowhere near the bleak conditions of its Rust Belt nadir. But focusing on what’s right in Chicago while ignoring the region’s massive problems is to doom it to failure.


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