George Will on the CTU... Leading conservative pundit takes on the Chicago schools issues, and doesn't teacher bash or union bust... Is the true conservative narrative changing from 'Waiting for Superman' and other nonsense to the realities of the hard work of urban teaching?

When a "conservative" writes, the question always has to be whether that person is a true conservative (there are good arguments for many of their points going back the Edmund Burke and the Federalist Papers) or a reactionary propagandist. The jury is always out. Anyone who has studied carefully the realities created (and sometimes lauded) in the name of "revolution" (or, in the case of contemporary capitalism, "innovation" like "Race to the Top") might pause and re-read Burke's assessment of the French Revolution (or the assessments in Charles Dickens's "Tale of Two Cities" and "Barnaby Rudge"). Conservative means, ultimately, to "conserve" and sometimes conserving is better than innovating. Ample proof was offered from Nuremburg to Pnom Phen during the last century, and one doesn't have to re-watch "The Killing Fields" to think about all that again. Just because "conservative" has been hijacked for a few years by the crazy pornography of "Atlas Shrugged" doesn't mean that everyone out there has lost his bearings. John Galt was never really a substitute for a careful reading of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, or the Federalists.

Conservative columnist George Will (above, without bow tie at Opening Day in D.C.) wrote about the complexities of Chicago school politics in his Fourth of July column in The Washington Post. At Substance, we have viewed this whole issue very closely, and at some personal and corporate cost. (Substance is an "S-Type" American corporation, not just a happy band of reporters). In 1999 we were sued for more than a million dollars and the resulting litigations cost us more than a quarter million (and cost this reporter his teaching career). The issues before each court we went before was whether a conservative or reactionary version of the law would prevail. (If this sounds familiar, consider the current situation facing Supreme Court Justice John Roberts...).

When our case on Substance's publication of the CASE tests went to the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, I told people it would also prove a case of whether Judge Richard Posner was a true conservative — or a reactionary propagandist.

In his December 31, 2003 decision (honest, it was published on New Year's Eve to avoid the news cycle) upholding the right of CPS to fire me from my teaching job, Posner proved that he was a reactionary propagandist, not a conservative. Using some typically slick rhetorical tricks (I loved how he turned my name into an adjective, but it evaded the Constitutional issues), Posner proved the propagandist, not the scholar. Basically, the Seventh Circuit threw the First Amendment under the bus to preserve the "right" of a government to keep dumb tests secret (and to fire whistle blowing journalists who also taught English).

The First Amendment issue presented by Schmidt v. Board (in all its various names) were not the simplistic "copyright trumps First Amendment" nonsense that had been presented, and which Posner affirmed. Our adversary was not a private corporation with some interesting intellectual property rights. The government of Chicago invoked "copyright" (for the only time in history) to protect itself not for the value of its intellectual property, but from its critics. And thanks to Posner's reactionary posture, CPS "won" on that key issue. A conservative might have noticed that it was government claiming to be the victim of an infringement — and we (Substance and I) were the private corporation under attack by a phony claim of "copyright" that has never been invoked by Chicago or CPS since. In his decision (and his childish hostility) Posner just proved he was not following in the footsteps of any of the historical parents of true conservatism, instead serving as a highly visible propagandist for a now discredited "market" perversion of history and economic reality. (Ironically, the debacles of 2008 have somewhat changed his approaches, although his "marketization" of all value is still in opposition to much of the history of conservatism).

But that's ancient history, peculiar to Chicago. And that's another story for another time.

Today, conservatism is facing a new challenge, and it's not going to get easier. How those who claim to be conservatives respond will prove interesting. About a month ago, people wandering into the offices of the Chicago Teachers Union noticed a "familiar" face — although the face was certainly out of place at the CTU (or so at least a simplistic version of reality would have it). Is that George Will?

Yes, it is.

Do you think he wants to talk about baseball?

He's here to talk with Karen and the officers.

George Will was sitting in Suite 400 in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago in the President's conference room. He had spent a good deal of time learning about the CTU. Instead of simplistically saying "This guy is a stone reactionary ignore him..." CTU was cordial. Instead of getting the usual reactionary spin on the current story ("Rahm versus the greedy teachers' union...") that has been on the nation's liberal agenda since "Waiting for Superman," actual facts and some nuance moved into the debate.

Two years of scripted nonsense (from the "Waiting for Superman" days before Rahm became mayor) that had been repeated over and over and over in "liberal" propaganda publications (like the Atlantic) and vapid promo sheets (like "Chicago") were getting a closer look. Rahm's Hollywood versions of Chicago reality had been crashing into fact, not script. A year of paid protesters, subsidized preachers, pandering professors, and Astroturfing "parent" participation were breaking up against real parents, a mass protest involving 10,000 teachers wearing "CTU red," and a 90 percent strike authorization vote. The work of teaching and learning in Chicago was forcing itself into the narrative. And like he had with baseball, a conservative was paying attention.

All of it taking place while Rahm entered his second year as mayor. About a third of the city's area was psinning out of control with drug gang violence — not just abstract "gun violence," as the old scripts would portray it. It was a mess — a mess that anyone could have predicted by listening to the real workers ‚ teachers, cops, and firefighters — as the city's Rookie Mayor completed a carefully scripted year of bashing teachers, cops, and firefighters. Rahm's Hollywood narrative had collapsed, and conservative America began paying attention. Any anyone who knows baseball knows why Rookies have to learn humility around veterans. George Will's baseball book "Men at Work" is still one of the best books ever written about the work of the "game."

How does the baseball book indicate something important for now? Professional baseball and professional teaching are both very complex professions that can't be oversimplified, and George Will can see that today, if only through a glass darkly.

One comment I will recommend to sum it up: "Men at Work remains today the same hard, honest look at the copious amount of labor that goes into being skilled at the craft of baseball." And so it could be said about any craft worth practicing, from teaching to policing to firefighting. Will has written some of the best baseball columns, as well as one of the best baseball books ever. He knows that a Rookie shouldn't be telling the veterans how to do their jobs — whether the vets are teachers, cops, firefighters, or journeyman pitchers. He knows how much time a reporter has to spend with people to learn about the work, and not just imbibing simplistic nonsense being passed along by overpaid and undercompetent propagandists. Conservatism — from Burke to today — can't risk falling into oversimplification.

The ironies were everywhere. Rahm finally came up against the realities of his rookie year that he couldn't script.

And perhaps, conservatism was taking a second hard look at several years of mindless propaganda. On July 4, 2012, Will reported on what he learned at CTU in his Washington Post column. The column, which popped up on July 6 in the Chicago Tribune, is worth rereading. It's not surprising that a reporter who can get the exact number of members of the Chicago Teachers Union straight could miss some basic facts he could have checked (like the fact that every working Chicago teacher pays into the pension fund), or that the "data" he cites on increased school funding is basically right wing propaganda. Overall, though, this is an interesting look at reality, in part induced by the massive successes of CTU organizing. We'll see how the stories evolve now, but I suspect that the simplistic narratives that Rahm Emanuel tried to push through from June 2011 through today are dying, at least among those facing the facts.

Read it (below or on line) and decide for yourself whether the organizing works and communications works of CTU were right to show respect for one of the senior commentators in the USA. By July 5, the column had drawn nearly 400 comments. You can read them on line. :

The URL for the column is


In Chicago, a battle over schools' future, By George F. Will,

CHICAGO. The name of the nation’s largest labor union — the National Education Association — seems calculated to blur the fact that it is a teachers union. In this blunt city, however, the teachers union candidly calls itself the Chicago Teachers Union. Its office is in the Merchandise Mart, a gigantic architectural Stonehenge, which resembles a fortress located on the Chicago River, which resembles a moat. Which is appropriate.

Unions are besieged, especially public-sector unions, particularly teachers unions, and nowhere more than here. Teachers unions have been bombarded with bad publicity, much of it earned, including the movie “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” and have courted trouble by cashing in on sentimentality, cloaking every acquisitive demand in gauzy rhetoric about how everything is “for the children.”

Still, have sympathy for Karen Lewis, 58, a Dartmouth graduate who is a daughter of two African American teachers. She taught chemistry for 22 years until she became president of the 26,502-member CTU. Her job is to make life better for her members, not to make life easier for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with his roughneck’s reputation and stevedore’s profanity, whose ideas are as admirable as his manners are deplorable.

He thinks that improved schools, including more charter schools, might arrest the exodus to the suburbs of parents whose children are ready for high school, so he wants a longer school year and school day. America’s school year (about 180 days) is one of the shortest in the industrial world, and while middle-class children may leaven their summers with strolls through the Louvre, less privileged children experience “summer learning loss.” Remediation requires the first few weeks of the fall term, which effectively further shortens the school year. And Chicago’s school day is the shortest of any large U.S. district.

The CTU wants a pay raise — 30 percent — proportional to Emanuel’s 90-minute increase in the school day and 10-day increase in the school year. He has canceled a 4 percent raise and offers only 2 percent. He says benefits the CTU has won — e.g., many teachers pay nothing toward generous pensions they can collect at age 60 — could in just three years force property taxes up 150 percent and require classes with 55 students.

Even discounting Emanuelean hyperbole, whose fault is this? Just as foggy rhetoric about corporations’ “social responsibilities” obscures the fact that a corporation’s responsibility is to maximize shareholder value, blaming unions for improvident contracts ignores the fact that a union’s principal task is to enhance members’ well-being — wages, benefits, working conditions. Unions can wound themselves by injuring their industries (e.g., steel and autos), but primary blame for improvident contracts with public employees belongs to the elected public officials who grant them.

Anyway, money — salaries and pensions — may not be the most problematic point of contention. It might be teacher “accountability,” including merit pay, and identifying failing schools and teachers. Lewis says, “We can’t choose the children that come into our classrooms.” Chicago schools are 86 percent black and Hispanic, and low pupil performances strongly correlate with household incomes.

Teachers unions, however, have painted themselves into a corner by insisting that spending is the best predictor of educational performance — increase financial inputs and cognitive outputs will rise. In the past 50 years, real per pupil spending nationwide has tripled and the number of pupils per teacher has declined by a third, yet educational attainments have fallen. Abundant data demonstrate that the vast majority of differences in schools’ performances can be explained by qualities of the families from which the children come to school: the amount of homework done at home, the quantity and quality of reading material in the home, the amount of television watched in the home and, the most important variable, the number of parents in the home. In Chicago, 84 percent of African American children and 57 percent of Hispanic children are born to unmarried women.

The city is experiencing an epidemic of youth violence — a 38 percent surge in the homicide rate, 53 people shot on a recent weekend, random attacks by roving youth mobs. Social regression, driven by family disintegration, means schools where teaching is necessarily subordinated to the arduous task of maintaining minimal order.

Emanuel got state law changed to require unions to get 75 percent of the entire membership rather than a simple majority to authorize a strike. Some people thought this would make strikes impossible. The CTU got 90 percent to authorize. Lewis’s members are annoyed, and are not all wrong.


July 6, 2012 at 12:06 PM

By: Sarah Loftus

Will's misleading information on per pupil spending...

"In the past 50 years, real per pupil spending nationwide has tripled..."

We've heard that a lot, as if this is an enormous increase. Let's see some other spending in 1962:

-- average salary $6,000

-- minimum wage $1.25

-- gallon of gas $.31

-- average cost of a house $15,000

-- tuition at Harvard University $1,520.00

-- new car $2,500

Seems that the costs in areas other than education increased a bit more than triple, perhaps closer to ten times?

I'm not one for just throwing more money at anything, but just think; if the spending for education had increased 10X maybe class sizes would be reasonable, maybe there would be libraries in all schools, maybe schools would have air-conditioning and heating that worked, maybe ...even with the power brokers getting their cut...maybe...

July 6, 2012 at 3:33 PM

By: Jay Rehak

Mr. Will's misinformation

George Will is either accidentally or purposefully spreading disinformation when he writes that "many teachers pay nothing towards generous pensions they can collect at age 60." In fact, teachers pay 9% of their salaries towards their pensions. Additionally, what is not stated is teachers do not receive social security. By the way, teachers pay 9% of their salary (2% directly and 7% as a pension pick up by the Board, which is still part of a negotiated salary and not to be confused with "normal" costs the Board is responsible for. BTW: "normal" costs are the difference between the 9% teachers and administrators put into the fund, and the money necessary to fully pay out the benefits. It is this "normal cost" that the Board did not pay from 1996-2006 which has caused the current pension funding problem.)

Teachers need to remind the public over and over and over. We pay 9% of our salaries for our pensions. American workers who pay into social security must pay 6.2 of their salary for that benefit. What this means is teachers pay almost 50% more into their retirement plans than do people who pay into social security.

Teachers and administrators in CPS need to continually remind the community of this reality. Mr. WIll's article, unfortunately, perpetuates a misperception that teachers are somehow getting a "Free pension." In fact, we pay for our pension benefit.

July 7, 2012 at 9:25 AM

By: Jean R Schwab

Will's Tribune article — inaccurate, Insulting

I was insulted by Will's article in the Tribune. He basically blamed the teachers for all the problems with the contract. I did not like his statements about Karen Lewis and CTU because I feel the CTU is a part of the solution not the cause of the financial and school problems. I believe that the violence and other problems in Chicago are a result of the destabilizing neighborhoods by closing schools. And who told him that we teachers don't pay into our pension fund? Not CTU leaders, that's for sure. I'm retired now, but paid every payday when I was teaching!

September 14, 2012 at 2:58 PM

By: Alvaro Perez

CPS Teachers Strike.


This is not strike of choice, as you claim.

This is a strike of PRINCIPLE!

But what would you know about principles?

I wonder!

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