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Anti-Capitalism Drives Chicago Teacher Strike

The Chicago teachers now on strike make some of the best teacher salaries in the country despite some of the worst student results. But they have been saying they’re not striking for the money, and I believe them. They’re striking over an anti-capitalist philosophy. It’s an interesting reason, for which I have a bit of sympathy (but not much). The teachers object mainly to a new state law that 25 percent of teacher evaluations be based on student academic progress, as measured by test score improvement. They are also grumpy about the growth of charter schools in the city. (Charters are fully public schools managed independently by, say, a business, a nonprofit or a community coalition.) The Chicago Teachers Union president and her allies across the country—such as education historian Diane Ravitch—see the strike as a moment for teachers to rise up against “privatizing public education.” “This strike is for the very soul of public education, not only in Chicago but everywhere,” she said last week. There have been many arguments voiced this week about the obvious disregard for student welfare that teachers demonstrate simply by striking, as instruction time is pivotal to student achievement, particularly for poor and minority students. My interest here is the practical effects for kids of the union’s stated anti-capitalist ideology. Public schools constitute a government monopoly over K-12 education. Yes, people are allowed to send their kids to private school, but they can seldom access public funds to do so. They must surmount a double price barrier: private tuition plus education-funding taxes. Furthermore, tying government school entry to ZIP code creates education inequities: It makes more families want to live where the good schools are, which means house prices in that area increase because of increased demand, which prices poorer families out of ZIP codes zoned for better schools. This means the monopolistic tendency to degrade quality combined with the ability of people to move makes government education generally crummy, and especially crummy for poor folks. It is also important to recognize, whether the Chicago Teachers Union likes it or not, that capitalism has long been the default setting for the U.S. economy, and has generated the massive wealth that made it possible for their teachers to have earned such eye-popping pay and benefits over the past decades (though bankrupting Illinois in the process because higher taxes caused by higher education spending hinder the market’s wealth-creating powers). In short, capitalism has made teachers comfortable while government-monopolized education has destroyed many children’s futures. If teachers are so obviously and openly hostile to and ignorant of this historic, central fact, what might they be teaching children about capitalism in the classrooms? I think we already know the answer to that, as evidenced by higher public support for the strike than against it, despite the horrific inconvenience to parents, cost to taxpayers and negative repercussions to 350,000 kids out of school for a week.