Chicago school principals can now unionize. Critics say that’s not good policy

Three Los Angeles Teacher Union members on stirke
Photo: LaTerrian McIntosh/Unsplash

Principals in the Chicago School District now have the ability to unionize because of a law signed by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. While principals are in the beginning stages of becoming certified, opponents have raised concerns about what effects the law could have for students and taxpayers. 

For those critical of public unions, the law means yet another layer of negotiations with Chicago Public Schools and less accountability to the parents, students and taxpayers. But principals say the law finally puts them at the table with the district and teachers unions and creates incentives for teachers to want to run schools. 

Chicago follows New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Newark, New Jersey in allowing principals who do not negotiate budgets to have the ability to collectively bargain, according to K-12 Dive

Philip K. Howard, a lawyer and author of the recently released book, “Not Accountable: Rethinking the Constitutionality of Public Employee Unions,” expressed concerns with Chalkboard Review about the effect the law will have on the education system.

“There is a kind of irony here which is that in the private sector, management is not allowed to unionize,” Howard said. “That’s a prohibition of the National Labor Relations Act because it’s thought to be a conflict of interest if you have unionized managers negotiating with unionized workers. They both have an interest in the power of the union, so the people who own the company would be harmed by that collusion.” 

Troy LaRaviere, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, told Chalkboard Review that principals should not be considered management because they don’t have a say in the district policies that affect their schools.

LaRaviere said that because principals were being left out of policy decisions with the district year after year, his association started pursuing bargaining rights as an avenue to start being able to have a seat at the table and remove bureaucratic barriers. 

“The people who had to implement those policies were not allowed to be at the table,” said LaRaviere. “There’s no one else who has that school-level implementation perspective like a principal.”

“Taxpayers and students are often not at the policymaker table either,” LaRaviere said. “Now they can be certain that people are at the policymaking table who are on the ground with them.”

But Howard said that the law will make it more difficult to change the city’s education system. 

“Principals have been disempowered by the teachers union contracts and now they want to disempower the school board or the school administrators from managing them,” Howard said. “So you have this downward spiral of supervisory disempowerment with rules designed to prevent anybody from making choices.” 

“It’s a formula for failure,” Howard added. 

Howard emphasized that union protections for teachers take power away from elected officials and gives them to the union. 

“If you have anything that needs changing and improving, the only solutions are new choices and trial and error,” Howard said. “Union contracts are all about preventing new choices. They encase failure in amber.”

But LaRaviere said the change would lead to success for taxpayers and students as principals would be better able to negotiate with the district and teachers. 

“Taxpayers and students are often not at the policymaking table,” LaRaviere said. “Now they can be certain that people are at the policymaking table who are on the ground with them.”

LaRiviere said seeing students succeed is what motivates Chicago’s principals.

“Principals are right there with the students, there’s no hidden agenda, there’s no interest to serve anyone but the students we serve every day,” LaRivere says.

Howard said union contracts are not intended to make schools work better, but rather preserve the perks and security of those covered by them.

Mailee Smith, senior director of labor policy and staff attorney for Illinois Policy, told Chalkboard Review that there are some questions around the law’s implementation, but the effects are already clear. 

“This newly recognized right for principals and assistant principals to unionize is going to have drastic effects on taxpayers and on school children,” Smith said.

Under state law, unions can negotiate over virtually anything, Smith said. And while the new law does not allow unionized principals to strike, it’s not clear whether that provision is in conflict with Illinois’ Constitution.

“This legislation says that anyone whose position requires an administrative license cannot engage in a strike,” Smith said. “The problem is, this law is secondary to our state constitution, which says that lawmakers cannot ‘negate or diminish the right of employees to organize and bargain.’”

“A strike is considered a tool of bargaining,” Smith said. “So by the very language of this bill, it is potentially violating our state constitution by saying principals can’t go on strike.”

The state’s broad provisions that allow principals to bargain with the district will drive up the costs of government for taxpayers and divert the district’s attention even further away from students, Smith said.

“The district is already negotiating with 10 other unions,” Smith said. “So adding yet another union to the mix means that there is an even greater likelihood that this is going to affect the lives of the children who have already seen walkout after walkout as unions negotiate with the district.”

Howard echoed that sentiment.

“Here you have principals who are already hamstrung by rules that have the purpose and effect of making schools less manageable, and arguably, virtually unmanageable,” Howard said. “And now you have principals who want to unionize themselves.”

But Howard also argued that the threat is larger than the schools.

“Democracy is just a process of accountability,” Howard said. “It’s all about electing new people if you want to do things differently. These contracts are all about making it so it makes no difference if you elect a new person. So democracy can’t work, it’s a matter of organizational physics.”

Howard said his book argues that the controls through collective bargaining that have put in place by legislatures to disempower elected executives should be unconstitutional under the Guarantee Clause and that public unions should not be able to mobilize politically.

“They’re mobilizing politically in breach of their duties to serve the public,” Howard said. “They organize billions of dollars in furtherance of an agenda to have the public serve them. It’s a clear conflict of interest.”

Brendan Clarey
Brendan Clarey is K-12 editor at Chalkboard Review. Reach him at

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