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‘They Wanted More School’
Obama on education reform.


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In his book The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama tells of a “youth town hall meeting” he conducted in 2005 at Thornton Township High School, in what he describes as a predominantly black suburb of Chicago. To prepare for the visit by their newly elected and highly popular senator, students there were surveyed about the quality of their education, with the idea that they could present their concerns.

Obama writes:

[T]heir number one issue was this: Because the school district couldn’t afford to keep teachers for a full school day, Thornton let out every day at 1:30 in the afternoon. With the abbreviated schedule, there was no time for students to take science lab or foreign language classes.

How come we’re getting shortchanged? they asked me. Seems like nobody even expects us to go to college, they said.

They wanted more school.

Senator Obama probably did not know that the average teacher in Thornton Township District earned an impressive $83,000 that year, short days notwithstanding. (The figure does not include administrators, who made much more.) In fact, more than one-quarter of the district’s teachers made more than $100,000 in 2005, according to figures compiled from the Illinois Board of Education by Champion News under the state’s freedom of information laws.

But Obama did at least identify the short school day at Thornton as a problem. Unfortunately, he has been less than audacious about the same problem in the nearby City of Chicago — a place where the teachers’ union that strongly supports him has been shortchanging children for decades in precisely this same way.

The elementary-school day and year in Chicago proper are the shortest of any major U.S. city. It lasts five hours and 45 minutes, and the schools are open just 174 days per year. This is entirely a result of the intransigence of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), a staunch ally of Barack Obama and an early endorser of his presidential candidacy.

The CTU has vigorously resisted all attempts to increase instruction time in Chicago schools. In 2007, the CTU thwarted Mayor Richard M. Daley’s attempt to make teachers teach for full school days. They negotiated a new contract that contained no extra hours but significant pay raises for the next four years. Deborah Lynch, the previous CTU president, agreed in 2003 to a 15-minute increase in the school day (from five and a half hours) in exchange for a seven-day reduction in the school year and large annual raises. The minor concession she made — a net five hours of extra teaching time per year — was used against her in the next teachers’ union election, which she narrowly lost.

Chicago schools are well-funded at 20 percent above the national average, and Chicago teachers are well-paid. Unlike most Americans, they enjoy nearly absolute job security and receive sizable annual pay raises, regardless of economic conditions. And they finish the school day when many other people are headed back to the office after lunch.

At entry level, Chicago teachers earn $43,702, plus $3,059 in pension contributions from the school district, according to CTU’s salary schedules. A starting teacher this year who does nothing to further his own education during the coming summers will be making more than $60,000 by 2012. Those who take graduate-level classes will boost themselves into the $100,000 range by the end of their careers.



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