9-15-12 Hall Institute - Chicago Teachers Show us What You Value

Chicago Teachers: Show Us What You Value

Written by William J. RichardsWilliam J. Richards

William J. Richards is the Director of New Media for the Hall Institute of Public Policy. His research interests include aerospace policy, science education, information technology in the democratic process, and civil rights.

Friday, 14 September 2012 18:30

Attention: open in a new window.PDFPrintE-mail

The Chicago teachers strike grabbed national headlines this week as more than 29,000 teachers and support staff walked out on Monday, leaving parents scrambling the find care for many of the 350,000 kids left suddenly without school to occupy their time.

The issues being contested have largely to do with new proposals that would tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, a “recall” policy that would put laid-off teachers first in line to be hired at other schools within the district (the city contends that hiring decisions should remain with individual principals), and pay and benefits.

The union representatives insist that this is not about pay. I have no doubt that they mean that. If this was just a pay dispute, the union would be crazy to risk striking. The fact is Chicago teachers are already among the best compensated in the state of Illinois. The average salary was $74,839 according to the school district. The average throughout the state is $64,978. Given the gap between these figures and the average wages of the taxpayers who fund them, bringing up pay as a striking issue would be a public relations nightmare for the union. They know better than that. So why bring up pay at all? Are the teacher’s just greedy and self-serving as some have sought to portray them?

The answer likely comes down to a legal matter. Illinois state law limits the issues that teachers can legally picket over to those addressed in their collective bargaining agreement. On Sunday, the teacher’s union acknowledged this by released a statement saying, “While new Illinois law prohibits us from striking over the recall of laid-off teachers and compensation for a longer school year, we do not intend to sign an agreement until these matters are addressed.”

So let’s put pay aside and examine what’s really at stake.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and other representatives from the teachers have gone on a media tour stating that the strike is about school conditions. It’s easy to sympathize with striking teachers when they’re just looking out for the students’ best interests. They cite issues like lack of air conditioning in classrooms during summer, the number of social workers in the city (325 for a school district of 400,000, including charter schools.) and classroom size.

Again, these are all reasonable concerns. If kids don’t have the basics, they can’t learn effectively. I don’t think anyone disputes this.

But when asked about the progress of negotiations, neither the representatives from the city, nor the representatives from the union even mention these issues. On Wednesday evening, Lewis declared the two sides were “miles apart”. Then on Thursday, Chicago Board of Education President David J. Vitale said, “The heavy lifting is over and the framework is in place.” When asked what changed in 24 hours, neither side cites air conditioning, or a plan to hire social workers. They cite compensation plans and benefits plans. They refer to a compromise involving an appeals program for teacher evaluations if the teachers will agree to participate in a wellness program.

Joe Biden famously said "Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value." The same could be said for the union contract currently under negotiation. The Teachers’ union can talk about social workers and classroom size all it wants. The teacher’s union and the city will both show the world how much it cares about students by the contract that comes out of these negotiations.

Show us the final contract, and I’ll tell you what you value.