Politics & Policy

Chi-Town Shakedown

Labor Day may have passed, but in Chicago school is still out for the summer. That’s because, for the first time in more than 25 years, the brothers and sisters of the Chicago Teachers Union are striking. Though they are already among the best-paid educators in the country, making an average of $76,000 per year in salary — plus benefits — the union is unsatisfied with an offer from the city’s board of education that provides them a 16 percent raise over four years, worth a total of $400 million. (The CTU’s original offer was for a 30 percent raise over two years.)

Accounts from both sides indicate that the sticking points are the maintenance of the union’s lavish benefits structure and a teacher-evaluation system that labor officials worry could — horror — result in the firing of large numbers of its most ineffective members.

On the merits, the case isn’t close. Chicago teachers currently pay just 3 percent of their own health-care costs, and nearly three-quarters of new education spending over the last five years has been gobbled up by their retirement costs. This sort of thing isn’t sustainable in a strong economy in a well-governed city in a state with its fiscal house in order, much less in Chicago, Illinois, in the midst of President Obama’s lost decade. To put things in perspective, the Chicago Public Schools system is facing a budget shortfall roughly one and a half times the size of the salary-increase offer rejected by the unions, its bonds have been downgraded by two of the “big three” ratings agencies, and the state’s teacher-pension system is less than 20 percent funded.

The question of how best to evaluate teacher performance is a bit more complex, to be sure, but the CTU and the board negotiated the current evaluation matrix in good faith just last year, and the city even agreed to make the first round of evaluations consequence-free while work is done to tweak the formula. But the CTU is already pressing for changes that would deemphasize test scores, and is leading with the assertion not that such changes would more accurately measure performance, but that they would avoid the termination-for-cause of thousands of dues-paying members.

The proximate consequence of the union’s intransigence is that a mass of youths won’t be in classrooms, but on Chicago’s increasingly murderous streets. The contrast with the city’s 45,000 charter-school students, along with its parochial- and private-school enrollees — all of whom remain in their classrooms — is stark. The benefits of school choice are manifold, but not least among them is that your child’s education needn’t be held hostage by the whims of public employees who finance and staff the campaigns of their putative bargaining “adversaries.” That sort of thing doesn’t happen in competitive markets.

Speaking of choice, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has called this a “strike of choice,” and he is righter than he knows, as the walkout presents Emanuel — along with his old boss, President Obama, and the Democrat/labor coalition more broadly — with a number of thorny decisions. Emanuel made education reform a signature issue of his election campaign, and on taking office last year withdrew a 4 percent raise for teachers as part of an effort to plug holes in the budget; he subsequently offered a 2 percent raise paired with the lengthening of the school day by 90 minutes (despite the fact that Chicago’s school days are currently shorter than the national average, the union balked, and the city agreed to hire more teachers to accommodate the longer work day). Will Emanuel keep his spine on education? Though his political base is not quite the same as the Daley dynasty’s, it is at least similarly broad, so he might be tempted to go Rahmbo and wait out the union, counting on his ability to contain any damage to his political coalition brought on by crossing labor.

On the other hand, this is an election year in his president’s adopted hometown. So when CTU president Karen Lewis recently said she missed a scheduled negotiation session with the board of education because she was “on phone calls with national and other labor leaders,” we believe her. What are those leaders saying? Per flack-in-chief Jay Carney, President Obama has “has not expressed any opinion or made any assessment about this particular incident” and, of course, is thinking first and last of the students.

But if the strike drags on (and it may: the city’s 1987 teachers’ strike lasted 19 days), it could become a conversation-shifting news peg. It would draw attention to the Janus-faced nature of the administration’s education policy, which features the president regurgitating the kind of stale talking points about class size that get CTU reps salivating at the same time his education secretary (and former Chicago superintendent) Arne Duncan is questioning the importance of class size and pushing for the very teacher-evaluation metrics that the union is fighting. Add to all this the fact that Emanuel has just taken a lead role in Obama campaign fundraising, and both the White House and city hall have every reason to leverage both board and union for a speedy resolution.

Political reality alone ought to force the Democrats to push labor for a quick agreement that maintains most of the cost-saving concessions, at least cosmetically preserves the teacher-evaluation model, and, most important, gets Chicago kids back to school. Whether this happens will say much about who wears the pants in the liberal coalition.  


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