On Tuesday, October 11, public school teachers in Chicago may go on strike, suspending the education of nearly 400,000 children and forcing parents to find safe havens for their kids in a city crippled by gang violence. Given the price, what will a strike accomplish? The last one, in 2012, changed very little and was mostly just a thumb in the eye of the Emanuel Administration after the state passed a law making it harder to strike. I spoke with a Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) representative who conceded that teachers don’t really “want” to strike but nevertheless feel it’s the only way to express frustration with budget cuts and working conditions that make their job more challenging. By law, teachers can only strike over wages and benefits but, based on
teacher blogs, an accumulation of grievances that are mostly related to the district’s troubled finances are driving teacher dissatisfaction: rising class sizes, cuts to support personnel such as nurses, counselors and librarians, and layoffs driven by enrollment declines. Beyond that, the union is hostile to public charter schools and test-based accountability, including teacher evaluation, which is part of the current contract. Publicly, the fight has revolved around whether teachers should pay the 9 percent share of their employee pension or whether the administration should continue the practice of “picking up” 7 of the 9 percent, a deal reached years ago in lieu of a pay hike. Management insists that almost all teachers will receive a net raise of 5-6 percent over the life of the contract even after pension and health care givebacks. The union does the math differently and insists teachers will lose money. It’s pretty hard to reach agreement on a contract if you can’t even agree on the math. I also met with two teachers opposed to the strike. They were particularly upset over the way the union conducted the recent strike vote in which 87 percent of members supported the walkout. Union representatives in each school put the names of every teacher on a roster clearly showing to other teachers who was for or against the strike. These teachers said there was extreme pressure to vote yes and fear of being ostracized for voting no. The teachers were especially alarmed by a recent conference call where union leaders allegedly urged members to put sugar in the gas tanks of cars owned by anyone who crosses picket lines. This kind of militant unionism offends their professional sensibilities. Today, according to the
National Council on Teacher Quality and
DNA Info, Chicago teachers are among the highest paid big city teachers in the country, earning more on average than teachers in any of the top 10 cities in America. A
state website shows Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers’ salaries are also competitive with all but the wealthiest surrounding suburbs. CPS retirees enjoy pensions that grow three percent annually, well above the current rate of inflation. CPS has little room to maneuver financially. They have cut expenses deeply and the city has raised local taxes by more than a billion dollars in the last year, largely to fund public pensions. There is zero chance the state will bail out the city to resolve the strike, and various calls for new taxes from the unions are not going anywhere either in Springfield or in the Chicago City Council. Ultimately, the strike may do little more than recoup a share of unused funds set aside for neighborhood development. The plain fact is that the accumulated demands of the teachers are beyond the district’s capacity and the state’s willingness to pay. In a world of finite dollars, it's inevitable that high salaries, flush pensions and affordable health care come at the expense of something else, whether it’s class size, support services or extra-curricular programs. Resistance to accountability among union leadership and the rank and file further undermines Chicago’s case for more funding. The education system has essentially made a grand bargain with taxpayers and legislators: provide adequate resources and schools will deliver results. Failure to get adequate results is supposed to trigger consequences—either leadership and some staff changes in the school or new and better educational options in the community. In many cases, the parents themselves are holding schools accountable by voting with their feet and choosing better options, including public charter schools. Today, CPS is getting results, including some of the
largest learning gains in the country and
rising graduation rates. If union-management relations in Chicago were less toxic, CTU President Karen Lewis and Mayor Rahm Emanuel could stand together to cheer those good results and then lock arms to fight for more funding in Springfield. Instead, Chicago is looking at its second strike in four years, playing right into the hands of those who want to defund public education and drive the district into bankruptcy. Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail.
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