War on Students: Chicago Teachers Union to Strike

Any academic instruction during the mayhem is prohibited by law.

This week, Democrats are holding their convention in Charlotte. During that convention, there is little doubt they will be extolling the virtues of organized labor, especially government employees, with teachers likely getting top billing. Next week, the teachers in President Obama's home city of Chicago have scheduled a reality check regarding such virtues: last Thursday, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) announced they will go on strike beginning September 10th. "We have said from the beginning, we’re tired of being bullied, belittled and betrayed," CTU President Karen Lewis told reporters.

According to the Chicago Sun Times, approximately 700 CTU delegates "thundered 'aye'" last Thursday after Lewis put forward a motion to set the Sept. 10th strike date. When Lewis asked for "nay" votes the hall reportedly fell silent. Chicago Public School (CPS) officials responded by outlining consequences of the first teachers' strike in 25 years, noting that 350,000 students would be denied an education, 11,000 athletes would be denied a chance to play varsity sports, and the transcripts and recommendations of 20,000 senior student would be "put on hold."

As a result of the strike threat, CPS has come up with a contingency plan called "Children First." The program will be put in place as "precaution," according to CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. It entails keeping 145 of the city's schools open for half days--from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., according to a statement released Thursday. The Chicago Board of Education also authorized spending $25 million to keep those schools open, staffed by principals, assistant principals, central office employees, parent volunteers and other non-union staff.  "Too much is at stake for our kids both inside and outside the classroom and that’s why we’re focused on reaching a fair contract for our teachers that keeps our kids in the classroom where they belong," Brizard said.

CPS also sent a letter to the Illinois High School Association last Thursday to see if they could be granted an exception to the current bylaws that prohibit athletic teams from practicing during a strike, despite the fact that 90 percent of the athletic coaches are CTU members. Another series of messages was sent to parents, via letters, text messages, robo-calls and in a “tele-town hall” meeting to let them know that their children will still be fed, supervised and otherwise engaged if a strike occurs.

Yet the nature of that engagement reflects the overwhelming power of the teachers union. “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,” said the CPS fact sheet. “Examples include arts, sports, journaling, independent reading and writing, puzzles and computer-based programs.”  The fact sheet also notes that CPS will be coordinating with the Chicago Transit Authority and the Police and Fire Departments to “ensure safety and provide additional services.”

The issues are familiar. The union wants higher wages than the two percent the CPS is currently willing to pay, having lost a scheduled four percent pay raise negotiated last year. They are also working 10 extra days this year as part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's pledge to lengthen both the school day and school year. The CTU also insists on maintaining so-called “step and lane’’ increases based on seniority and extra credentials--even as they remain against bonuses for teachers who improve student test scores. The union also wants to be able to continue "banking" sick days that cost the system millions of dollars annually.

Moreover, the union wants teachers who have been laid off to be first in line for new jobs, as opposed to principals having the power to hire the best teachers available. The CPS agreed to hire 477 more elementary school teachers from a pool of recently laid-off teachers as part of a preliminary deal on how schools would handle the longer day this school year, but the union wants to expand that deal to cover every jobs slot that opens up. The union remains steadfast regarding this provision because it is likely CPS, due largely to budget constraints, is likely to close or consolidate schools that underperform, or don't have enough students to be run efficiently. The union wants to make sure that its members who are laid off in the process don't have to compete with anyone else for openings.

Chicago teachers are unlikely to garner much sympathy from average Americans regarding their current demands. According to the CPS, the average pay for teachers--without benefits--is $76,000. The union claims it is $5,000 lower, but either way, they're the second-highest or highest paid teachers in the nation. Nevertheless, CTU attorney Robert Bloch still attempted to elicit sympathy for his members. “When you’re looking at compensation, it’s not enough just to look at salary, because Chicago Public Schools teachers have to pay more for their insurance, and they get less of a contribution from the employer for their pension than in other cities,” he said. Bloch also claimed per-pupil pay is lower in Chicago than other cities. “Working conditions are part of everyone’s job, we all think about working conditions,” he added.

Civic Federation president Laurenence Msall offered a rebuttal. “It’s math. It’s not really politics, as much as it gets caught up in politics. The financial situation of the Chicago Public Schools is dire. The situation of the State of Illinois that provides significant funding to the Chicago Public Schools is dire,” he said. “The property tax payers in Chicago are beleaguered. They’re seeing a drop in their property values, and to be asking them to pay increased property taxes, so we can fund increased salaries for employees is something that’s gonna be a very tough political sell.”

Tough may be an understatement. Last March, despite cost cutting, layoffs and restructuring that took place in 2012 the CPS projected a $600-700 million budget shortfall for 2013. And that's before the cost of a longer school day was factored in. In July, CPS released a $5.16 billion budget, met in part by completely draining its reserves of nearly $400 million. Ominously that budget assumed the CTU would settle for the two percent raises they are currently rejecting. Budget deficits projects were accurate at $665 million. The budget was approved on August 22nd.

The deficit may balloon to well over $1 billion by 2014. That's when the district's four-year "pension holiday" expires and it will have to resume making full pension payments, according to CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll, who expects those pension costs to increase that year by almost $340 million.

Regardless, the teachers union held a rally yesterday at Daley Plaza. Their website contended that it was about "the current climate of scapegoating union workers in an attempt to force us all to accept contract givebacks," further noting that its members and the services they provide are "under attack!"

For perspective sake, it should be noted that last year represented a "record breaking" one in terms of student graduation in Chicago. Just under 61 percent of the students enrolled as freshmen in the 2007-2008 school year received a diploma--meaning almost four-in-ten did not. Furthermore, the Chicago Sun Times claims the CPS has calculated graduation rates "based on how many freshmen graduate within five years, for 14 years," despite a state requirement to calculate four year rates for official counts sent to parents. Last June, CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler told Catalyst Chicago this could provide "great momentum going into next year." Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard called the results "impressive."

Perhaps in the world of unionized public school education, such graduation rates are impressive. Yet even such "success" stories obscure the fact that American students are falling behind their peers in other countries. A report recently published by Harvard University's Program on Education Policy and Governance reveals the American students are being significantly out-gained by those in foreign countries. Michelle Rhee, former D.C. schools chancellor who currently heads Students First, notes that critical reforms are necessary because "our education system can't compete with the rest of the world."

It gets even tougher to compete when teachers go on strike.

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