Here we are again. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has voted to go
nuclear and strike in an attempt to settle labor-management disputes over compensation and budget distress. The district has offered teachers a contract with a 8.75 percent increase in wages, an ill-advised cap on new charter schools and a pay scheme including “steps and lanes” that give unearned bumps in pay based on seniority and experience, not talent or merit. But there is a wrinkle in that offer the teachers can’t accept. By state law, Illinois teachers are supposed to pay nine percent toward their own pension plans, but Chicago teachers pay only two percent and they don’t want to pay their fair share. Cue the red shirts and the solidarity songs.
Why won’t we pay teachers for their hard work?
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is America’s third largest school district, boasting a $5.4 billion budget. Certainly they can afford to compensate teachers for their tireless work in educating children, right?
[pullquote position="left"]No one ever wants to haggle with teachers over pennies. Americans are entirely sympathetic when it comes to teachers. We generally—and sometimes naively—repeat the cliche “teachers don’t get paid enough” and “teaching shouldn’t require a vow of poverty.” Yet, a median fully-loaded public school teacher in Chicago
costs the district $105,500. Not exactly pocket change or poverty wages. CTU leader Karen Lewis has said she wants her members to be “adequately compensated.” Comparing their packages with the parents of their students living in Chicago’s West and Southside neighborhoods where the predominately Black residents’ household incomes range between $10,000 and $20,000, it appears teacher compensation is at least adequate.
Chris Butler, a Chicago pastor, father and activist, wants us to remember
a few facts when it comes to teacher pay in the city:
Typically labor organizers do a good job of conflating their middle-class disputes with the interests of the poor students and parents in public schools. In a narcissistic and maddening perversion of logic, we are to believe fattening the personal incomes of already fairly compensated teachers uplifts their subjects who are trapped in economically bleak circumstances. A better focus might be on the unacceptable academic results of CPS and wonder what citizens get for their money. Black reading proficiency is below 20 percent, and in math it’s only 12 percent. That’s for kids in poverty. For middle-class students, it’s only 41 percent and 27 percent respectively. Those types of numbers bespeak a generation of young people who won’t qualify for college or meaningful work. Forty-seven percent of Chicago’s Black men between ages 20 and 24 are
out of work and out of school. We know what that means. Large groups of capable and worthy human beings are on track to become economic outcasts who can expect lives of stress, social alienation and capture by an eagerly waiting criminal justice system. That problem is only compounded by teacher strikes. The last time CPS faced a strike, pastors and parents wanted the district and teachers to avoid disrupting the lives of low-income parents who
couldn’t afford threats to their tenuous work-life situations.
In a city constantly seeking solutions to
guns and gangs, school is often the safest place to be. For teachers to walk out on their students over a few dimes is probably the most morally broke and opposite-of-woke thing they could do.
It’s the budget, stupid
When teachers are mistreated or underpaid, they have no choice but to withhold their labor and jolt the powers that be into better bargaining posture. None of us should ever discount the power of collective action and the right to strike. At the same time we can’t turn off our brains to the tangled politics and showy theatrics that hide the real issues in these disputes. Often we’re sold a picture of uncaring bureaucrats who want to squeeze working people so hard they
have to take Uber jobs to make up the difference. Sometimes that might be accurate. Other times it’s just juvenile theater spurred by the inability of labor to understand the finite nature of money. In those times, it feels like adults need to say, “I understand you want a pony, my Princess, but Daddy just got laid off.” This might be one of those times. For a district facing a $300 million budget deficit, this couldn’t be a worse time for teachers to be
bad partners in addressing CPS’ financial issues. Given their indifference to the needs of kids and the realities of the district's financial picture, as well as the CTU’s willingness to put everyone at risk but themselves, we might be learning that some of Chicago’s biggest thugs wear red T-shirts.
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of
brightbeam. He was named CEO in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, ...