America / Education

Let the Sunshine In

On September 18th, 8 days after taking to the streets of Chicago with their picket signs and their rhytmic chanting, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted to end their grandscale strike and return to class. The vote was the culmination of a bitter clash between the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Board of Education as educational reforms on teacher evaluations, benefits, and layoffs sparked 27,000 teachers to leave their posts for the first time in 25 years, closing 650 schools, and leaving 350,000 children without a classroom.

As measures were taken to ensure that students still had a place to go during the day, union representatives and board members engaged in heated negotiations behind close doors, emerging at the end of each day still in fierce deadlock, with very different accounts of what occurred in the meetings. The kind of “he said/she said” inane drivel that each side spouted to the media  informed the public of nothing more than each side’s utter dislike for the other. Media outlets across the country weighed in on the strike and negotiations with very little substantive information off of which to base their reports. After all, it’s very difficult to analyze a situation when you’re prevented from witnessing the actual situation in the first place.

These negotiations involved public school teachers, public officials, and their use of public funds. Why is it then, that the PUBLIC itself was shut out from  the deliberation process? At most, they deserve a seat in the room, if only to listen and quietly take notes. Whatever one’s views on union power or collective bargaining, it cannot be denied that shutting the public out from critical debate so significant to the public itself is completely counterintuitive.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” One of the core principles in a democracy is the power of the people to oversee their public officials, ensuring they are representing their best interests. It only makes sense that the public, who are comprised of taxpayers and parents (major stakeholders in education negotiations), should be engaged in the process. Doing so would not only keep the public better informed, but also force both sides of the table to be honest and accountable in their negotiations. Too many times during the Chicago strike, we heard Rahm Emmanuel claim this was a “strike of choice” or CTU President Karen Lewis berate Emmanuel for being a “bully.” If the public were in that room with them, it would have been much easier for them to cut through the hazy political rhetoric and really force the opposing sides to get down to business.

Many could argue that having the public be involved in union negotiations would turn it into a complete political circus wrought with a cacophony of voices that would lead to even more rancorous and intense negotiations. I would ask them to look over the reports of the 8-day Chicago strike and convey to me how they could have gotten any more heated. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel deemed the strike illegal and sought a court order to crush it. Short of arresting protestors, I think it pretty much hit boiling point.

The idea of open negotiations between teachers unions and school boards is not a novel concept, nor a partisan one. Back in April, during preliminary union negotiations in Douglas County, Colorado, Brenda Smith, President of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, requested that negotiations with the school board be made open to the public. “By letting the sunlight shine on our negotiations, parents, taxpayers and employees will benefit by seeing the open dialogue around our district’s priorities,” Smith said to the school board. “I hope you consider this.” Not only did they consider it, they passed it.

Similar reforms have taken place in Idaho under Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna’s “Students Come First” plan. For the past two years, negotiations have been open to the public, with no noticeable hindrances to negotiations. “I think it’s a positive change,” said Wiley Dobbs, a superintendent in Twin Falls, Idaho, who noted the presence of guests did not bother either side at the negotiation table during their talks with local union representatives.

In any well-run business, it is important to make sure that your investors are informed of how the business is using their money in the most advantageous and beneficial of ways. Taxpaying Americans are key investors in the public education system. However, their true investment ascends to a far more important plane, in that they not only invest their money in the public education system, they invest their children in it, which is a far more personal investment, perhaps the most important one a person can and will ever make. With so much stake in the public school system, how can union and school board leaders not open such important deliberations to the public?