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The Chicago Teachers Union went on strike Sunday night, citing such issues as compensation, health benefits, and job security. Chicago is out of money, the State of Illinois is even more out of money, and in tough economic times, no one has job security.
Chicago is the location of the headquarters for Barack Obama's reelection campaign. Mayor Rahm Emanuel was the President's Chief of Staff before returning to Chicago to run for mayor. Probably none of the parties involved want a strike during the runup to the November elections. At least, none of them should want a strike.
Issues for the union are primarily financial. The school district cannot afford the union's gold-plated health plan, and would like to cut back on it in order to keep from firing teachers. According to the union's blog:
“Recognizing the Board’s fiscal woes, we are not far apart on compensation. However, we are apart on benefits. We want to maintain the existing health benefits."
Teachers currently pay between 1.3% and 2.8% of their base salary for family health insurance.
The teachers also say they want "job security", and apparently an increase in the number of paid inservice days. Complaining about curriculum changes and an evaluation system that actually means something, the teachers also want the school district to pay for their continuing education.
But much of what is called continuing education is actually union organizing while on the clock. More from the union's blog:
“Another concern is evaluation procedures. After the initial phase-in of the new evaluation system it could result in 6,000 teachers (or nearly 30 percent of our members) being discharged within one or two years. This is unacceptable. We are also concerned that too much of the new evaluations will be based on students’ standardized test scores. This is no way to measure the effectiveness of an educator. Further there are too many factors beyond our control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control.
Rather than basing evaluations on student test scores, the union apparently would like not to be evaluated at all, or at least, would prefer that evaluations not be tied to any consequences for poor performance.
John Tillman, CEO of The Illinois Policy Institute, said in a release:
"Now that Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has announced that CTU will strike Monday morning, it is very clear: Children are not the top priority for teachers who belong to the Chicago Teachers Union. The two things that matter most to these teachers are money and avoiding accountability for poor performance.
The timing and content of the announcement make it clear that the union bosses like Karen Lewis are concerned with holding on to their own power. With so many in Illinois out of work, Illinoisans are shocked at the high salaries and job security for even the most incompetent teachers.
The fiscal reality is that Chicago Public Schools are broke. CPS will be draining cash reserves this year just to stay afloat, and will be $1 billion in the red next school year. The 30 percent raise CTU originally asked for is out of the question, and so are other double-digit raises that CTU has demanded. Average teacher pay in Chicago is already at $71,000 without benefits, while the average Chicagoan makes only $30,203 and the unemployment rate in the city is nearly 11 percent.
The reality facing students is much more grim. Four out of 10 children who enter a CPS high school will not graduate. That's why the focus of these negotiations should be on reforms that empower parents rather than perpetuating a broken system. Monday morning, more than 80,000 kids in Chicago will show up to be taught in charter schools or independent private schools, and those teachers will be showing up to work – unlike the teachers who belong to the CTU. These schools have something in common that is different from those CPS schools that will not operate tomorrow: the CTU is not the monopoly provider of labor to those schools.
Mayor Emanuel and the school board negotiators should stand firm. The public will be on the side of the school district, and the matter will quickly resolve itself in a humiliating blow to the unions and an embarrassment to the President.