September 14, 2012

Teachers’ strike shows Chicago’s divide


The Chicago teachers’ strike is now a week old. What have we learned? As usual in these cases, there are two sides to the story. Teachers insist the strike is not a self-serving endeavor aimed at taking in higher wages and benefits, but rather a response to pressing and legitimate concerns regarding the school district’s call for performance-based pay. Only with the assurance of unmitigated job security and benefits, teachers claim, will they be able to do their jobs well.

On the other side, education reformers insist that Chicago’s school system is broken, and that when teachers must adhere to strict performance-based pay and accountability the quality of education improves. What’s more, Chicago’s public school teachers already earn an average salary of $71,000 per year, which is much higher than what teachers in other parts of the country earn. How can more money be justified when Chicago’s students regularly underperform and maintain a high dropout rate?

The Chicago school district has offered a 16% salary increase over four years with improved health benefits, contingent upon teacher performance. With nearly 80% of 8th grade students not proficient in reading and math, the school district contends it is impossible to consent to increased wages without tying them to some form of accountability.

The striking teachers argue that they have little control over performance, as a significant portion of students come from low-income households living in crime-ridden neighborhoods. The Chicago Tribune reports:

Teachers feel beaten down throughout the country,” said Randi Weingarten, national president of the union including the Chicago teachers. “They feel beaten down because of austerity, because of test- rather than teacher-driven policies, because of a spike in poverty, because of the demand on them to do more with less – and then blame them when that doesn’t work out.”

“That’s what’s created all the frustration that you hear on the picket line,” she said.

Writing for CNN, former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett suggests that “Once again, the Chicago teachers union is showing its true colors: self-serving public sector bullies more interested in their well-being than the well-being of students.”

He goes on:

A dropout rate of nearly four students in 10 is a national disgrace. For 25 years, Chicago’s teachers’ unions have held the city’s parents and students hostage while morally and financially bankrupting the city. Chicago public schools are $665 million in debt, and that debt is expected to exceed $1 billion next year. For 25 years, the union has blocked and impeded educational progress. The time for change is long overdue.

The LA Times reports, however, that while the union does in fact agree that students are underperforming, the job-performance policies are too strict:

This year Chicago Public Schools began rolling out a new system in which student test scores would count for 25% of a teacher’s performance rating. It would increase to 30% in two years. The union believes the system is too heavily weighted toward test scores and could put thousands of teachers out of work.

The union is also pushing hard to revamp job security policies, including those governing the rehiring of laid-off teachers — important to educators because the district may be forced to close schools in part because of an expected $3-billion deficit in coming years.

At the end of the day, more than 350,000 students from kindergarten to high school are not in the classroom. The city is operating 147 schools with non-union teachers, but numbers indicate that only a small portion of the student body is in attendance. Despite these numbers, according to a Chicago Sun Times poll, voters are split, with 47 percent supporting the teachers union, 39 percent against the strike and the rest uncommitted.

As of this writing, a resolution is not in place, but the union President Karen Lewis is optimistic that students will return to class by Monday:

“I’m praying, praying, praying. I’m on my knees for that,” Lewis said about students’ returning to school Monday.

A House of Delegates meeting has been scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday, and the timing of the meeting puts pressure on both sides to bring home a completed package by then.

CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin said the meeting was being called to update delegates, allow them to weigh in on the offer, as well as to possibly consider “a new course of action.”

Of course a fast and fair resolution is what everyone wants, it just depends on how those terms are defined.



Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.