350,000 Chicago Students Out of School for Teachers Strike

Published September 10, 2012

Chicago Public Schools’ 350,000 students lost instruction in the second week of school as teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years.

Despite negotiating for a new contract all summer, CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union failed to reach an agreement on several key issues in early September, including tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. CTU called for a strike. Approximately 25,000 teachers began picketing outside their schools in the nation’s third-largest school district.

“It is time that good teachers be rewarded and bad teachers be let go,” said John Nothdurft, government relations director for The Heartland Institute, which publishes School Reform News. “[CTU President] Karen Lewis and the union leadership’s decision to move forward with the strike rather than postpone has put children and parents in a tragic and unnecessary situation.” 

Union Rejected Pay Raise
CPS offered teachers a four-year package worth $400 million that would have increased the average teacher’s compensation by 16 percent over that time, said Chicago School Board President David Vitale. The city expects to face a $3 billion budget deficit over the next three years, plus a $2 billion pension deficit over the next two years. CPS’s annual spending is approximately $5.5 billion.

After the union’s contract expired in June, it engaged in contentious talks with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff, over policies the president and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan have endorsed. Duncan was Chicago schools chief before his current position.

“We know a strike is really going to be painful. People will be hurt on both sides,” Jay Rehak, a union delegate and high school English teacher, told the Chicago Tribune. “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.'”

Major Points of Contention
Emanuel said negotiations broke down over two main issues: evaluating teachers by whether they raise students’ academic achievement (which is required by state law), and authority for principals to hire teachers they think best, rather than teachers laid off from other Chicago schools, as CTU wants.

“Evaluate us on what we do, not the lives of our children we do not control,” Lewis said, blaming parents and the city’s social environment for poor academic results.

Obama and Duncan support data-based teacher evaluations, requiring states to adopt them in return for Race to the Top grants and waivers of No Child Left Behind, the largest federal education law.

Low Accountability, High Pay
A 2005 survey of Illinois data by the Small Newspaper Group found that, of 95,000 Illinois teachers, an average of two each year were fired for academic incompetence over an 18-year period. It also found approximately 0.1 percent of Illinois teachers were ever rated “unsatisfactory” on existing nonobjective evaluations. 

In every state that has recently adopted them, data-based teacher evaluations rate a teacher partly by how much he or she adds to students’ knowledge. Teachers are not penalized for students entering their classrooms ignorant, but only for not teaching those children during the time they’re in their classrooms.

The average Chicago teacher already makes one-third more than the average Chicago worker, at $76,450 a year, and for 10 months of work at 7 hours of work a day, under their last contract. That figure does not include healthcare and pension benefits. Chicago teachers can retire at 60 on a taxpayer-sponsored pension worth 75 percent of their highest annual salary.

Chicago students score worse than 68 percent of their U.S. peers in reading and worse than 63 percent in math, according to the Global Report Card. They score worse than 79 percent of their international peers in math and worse than 65 percent in reading. City officials recently celebrated a 60.6 percent graduation rate.

Charter Students Unaffected
The city’s approximately 50,000 charter school students are unaffected by the strike, as charter schools are independently run and largely nonunion, though still fully public schools.

“Thanks to Chicago’s independently managed charter schools,… 50,000 of Chicago’s 400,000 public school children will not be shortchanged,” said Robert Holland, a senior fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute. “That reality could strongly reinforce in parents’ minds the desirability of school choice for all children.”

CPS spends almost $16,000 per student, according to the Cato Institute. That’s enough to pay for every Chicago child to attend 64 of Chicago Magazine’s top 70 private schools. Tuition at most of these schools, for the elementary years, runs between $3,000 and $8,000.

Emanuel, Obama, and Duncan support charter schools and have called for them to multiply. CTU strenuously objects to charters.

Earlier this summer, CPS and CTU agreed to lengthen students’ school day without lengthening most teachers’ workdays, by hiring 477 new teachers.

Under the agreement, the elementary school day would increase from five hours and 45 minutes to seven hours in the country’s third-largest school district. Emanuel had proposed a 7.5-hour day. The high-school day will lengthen from seven hours to seven and a half. The city previously had one of the shortest school years in the country.


Live updates at the Chicago Tribune here

Image by Publik16.