It's Time for Chicago and Its Teachers Union to Collaborate and Win for Kids

After 11 days on the picket line, Chicago public school teachers are back at work and there’s plenty of chest-beating and navel-gazing underway. 

Speculation is running wild about the political fallout for Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The Sun-Times is trumpeting “rookie” mistakes and giving union leaders a platform to publicly sulk

But the criticism of the mayor rings hollow: she kept her cool and came out looking strong—just as she did in the election when she trounced the CTU’s endorsed candidate.

If anyone faces political fallout, it’s CTU President Jesse Sharkey. The strike had profoundly negative consequences for students and teachers. Eleven days of lost learning time in October is significant, and the six days of lost pay essentially reduces a teachers’ 3% salary bump to about 1% in the first year of the contract. Teachers and families also need to adjust their schedules to make up five of the lost days.

Two teachers also complained to me that the “democratic” union is anything but democratic in the way it conducts strike votes, with delegates hovering over teachers as they vote and threatening to expose “no” voters. If their sentiment is more broadly shared, Sharkey could face pressure from the center as teachers tire of his political antics.

The big question going forward is, will the union continue with its adversarial relationship, where every interaction is an accusation or a grievance? Or, will CPS and CTU become true partners in improving schools?

Will they collaborate on the big curriculum project announced as part of the 2020 budget?

Will they work together on difficult issues like under-enrollment and school accountability?

Will they agree on a common set of budget facts so the public dialogue is, “we said” instead of “he-said, she-said?”

At the moment, they won’t even stand together.

Labor Peace Helped Chicago Students—Will Muscular Unionism Help More, Or Less?

Chicago has come a long way from the 1970s and 1980s when there were nine teacher strikes in 18 years, little progress in the classroom and a massive exodus from the system. Today, after three decades of reform, the district is leading the state and the nation in student gains and graduation rates are up dramatically.

For much of this time, Chicago enjoyed labor peace, but since 2012, muscular, no-compromise unionism has become the new norm. Whether it will yield meaningful gains for teachers and kids is an open question. And, will it inspire more parents and teachers to join the movement, or have the opposite effect? Enrollment trends are not promising—they suggest families would rather flee than get involved.

One win for the unions is the provision allowing teachers to apply up to 244 unused sick days to their pensions. Previously, under the “use it or lose it” policy, teachers at the end of their careers would take off scores of sick days, requiring schools to find subs. However, this solution adds to the unfunded pension tab, which now sits at about $28 billion.

As for a host of other issues—class sizes, nurses, librarians, social workers and special education substitutes—the union forced CPS to “put it in writing,” thanks in part to media cheerleading, and secured $35M in funding to fill positions. But, it’s unclear how that will work out, as Maureen Kelleher writes. Many overcrowded schools, primarily in White and Latino schools, do not have space to relieve class size so teaching assistants are the only viable option. And, there is no readily available pool of nurses, counselors and special education teachers to fill promised positions, especially in the most under-served schools.

Ultimately, the CTU settled for the same salary offer that was on the table before the strike began: 16% over five years--an average of 3.2% per year.  The new contract will bring the average teacher salary up to about $100K by 2024. With pension benefits, lifetime earnings for a 30-year Chicago teacher who reaches normal life expectancy is around $4 million. 

Lightfoot Won on the Big Stuff—Now It’s Time to Work Together

The five-year length of the contract was a victory for the mayor. The CTU wanted a three-year deal that expired in June 2022, which would have made the next contract an issue in the February 2023 mayoral election.

The mayor also dodged a demand to embrace the CTU’s elected school board proposal, which stalled in Springfield. While candidate Lightfoot endorsed an elected school board in concept, Mayor Lightfoot has yet to spell out a specific proposal. Given recent events, her eagerness to give up control of the school system may have waned somewhat.

Either way, the strike could have been avoided. Most issues could have been worked out in the same way they will have to be worked out over the next five years: people sitting down together and compromising to find workable solutions. What a concept.

Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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