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How much sympathy the teachers can garner for their cause remains to be seen. The Chicago school district faces a $3 billion shortfall over the next three years, engendered largely by a crushing burden of pensions promised to retiring teachers. And depending on the source, teachers command an average salary — before benefits are added in — somewhere between $70,000 and almost $75,000 per year. Furthermore, Chicago teachers received total wage increases ranging from 19-46 percent during their 2007-12 contract, depending on several factors, including length of service.
The political implications of the strike must also be considered. Emanuel is the former White House chief of staff who has just agreed to take a large role in the president’s re-election fund-raising efforts. His strained relationship with the teachers union, and by extension organized labor, is likely to anger one of the Obama administration’s key fund-raising and get-out-the-vote constituencies. Moreover, the strike comes during a time when local governments across the nation are struggling with large budget gaps, substantial portions of which are due to union contracts that are unsustainable absent major reforms.
Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, illuminates the schism with the Democrat Party’s rank and file regarding such issues. This is “a fight between old labor and new Democrats who support education reform, and it has been brewing for a long time in cities across the country,” he said.
That disagreement may be part of the reason for the strike. Last year the national advocacy group, Stand for Children, angered the union when it got the Illinois state legislature to pass laws mandating teacher evaluations, and a requirement that CTU have 75 percent of its membership agree to any strike. Stand’s research also gave Emanuel ammunition during his mayoral run, where he pointed out that that Chicago’s schools have the shortest days in the nation, spearheading his request for the longer school day.
Standing in stark contrast to Chicago’s public school closures are the city’s charter schools that serve 45,000 students–and remain open. “We think our parents have gotten the message. We think our kids have gotten the message, but we wanted to make sure that we were very clear to every person who lives in Chicago that charter schools will be open tomorrow,” said Beth Purvis, the CEO of Chicago International Charter Schools.
Xian Barrett, a Chicago high school law and history teacher, expressed the union position to the Huffington Post on Sunday. “We’re all very nervous about the outcome,” said the teacher. “But I’m also hopeful that we’re finally taking a stand on issues that have more to do with educating children than salary or benefits. It’s about who has the right to determine how children are educated in the community.”
It certainly does, not only in Chicago, but across the nation. Unions exist for one purpose and one purpose only: to promote and protect the rights of their members. That means, all platitudes aside, that even under the most optimal circumstances imaginable, the concerns of parents and their children come second. Thus, the idea that this strike is “for the children” rings extremely hollow. Nothing highlights this reality better than a CPS fact sheet sent to parents in preparation for the strike. “While academic instruction will not be provided [because it’s prohibited by law during a teachers strike], students will participate in positive activities to keep them engaged,” it stated. In other words, no union teachers, no teaching.
Furthermore in resisting the evaluations, CTU president Karen Lewis alluded to a familiar fallback position for teachers unions around the nation: we can’t be responsible for lousy parents, or the chaotic lives of children. Who taught the parents, Ms. Lewis? Furthermore, when have teachers collectively bargained, not just for their own well-being, but over issues such as the ability to expel unruly or dangerous students, a decent dress code, or higher education standards — as opposed to lower ones?
The best Chicago teachers can do is apparently demand that schools be air-conditioned and class sizes be smaller. Whether air-conditioning is a necessity in a school district hundreds of millions of dollars in the red located in a northern city is debatable at best. And while there are some teachers who are unavailable for teaching during a given time frame, 400,000 students divided by 20,000 teachers–six thousand less than the reported number employed–comes to 20 students for every teacher.
“We know a strike is really going to be painful,” union delegate Jay Rehak told The Chicago Tribune. “People will be hurt on both sides. But in the end, it’s like saying, ‘I’ll be bloodied and you’ll be bloodied, but at least you’ll know not to bully me again.’” Parents are being completely inconvenienced, and children are being denied an education–but teachers who make an average of fifteen hundred dollars a week are being “bullied.”
That’s the real CTU’s “children first” worldview.
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