Here we are again. The Chicago Teachers’ Union has voted to go nuclear and strike in an attempt to settle labor-management disputes over compensation and budget distress.

The district has offered teacher a contract with a 8.75 percent increase in wages, an ill-advised cap on new charter schools, and a pay scheme including “steps and lanes” that give unearned bumps in pay based on seniority and experience, not talent or merit.

But, there is a wrinkle in that offer the teachers can’t accept. By state law Illinois teachers are supposed to pay nine percent toward their own pension plans, but Chicago teachers pay only two percent and they don’t want to pay their fair share.

Cue the red shirts and the solidarity songs.

Why won’t we pay teachers for their hard work?

CPS is America’s third largest school district, boasting a $5.4 billion budget. Certainly they can afford to compensate teachers for their tireless work in education children, right?

No one ever wants to haggle with teachers over pennies. Americans are entirely sympathetic when it comes to teachers. We generally – and sometimes naively – repeat the cliche “teachers don’t get paid enough” and “teaching shouldn’t require a vow of poverty.”

Yet, a median fully-loaded public school teacher in Chicago costs the district $105,500. Not exactly pocket change or poverty wages.

Chicago Teachers’ Union leader Karen Lewis has said she wants her members to be “adequately compensated.” Comparing their packages with the parents of their students living in Chicago’s west and south side neighborhoods where the predominately black residents’ household incomes range between $10,000 and $20,000, it appears teacher compensation is at least adequate.

Chris Butler, a Chicago pastor, father, and activist who blogs at Chicago Unheard want us to remember a few facts when it comes to teacher pay in Chicago.

Here they are:

  • CPS teachers make an average of $78,000 per year (the starting salary is over $50,000) and they have the highest lifetime earnings of any of the 10 largest cities in America.
  • 2014 study shows that the lifetime earnings for a 30-year Chicago public school teacher is $2.15 million dollars, not including pensions.
  • Chicago teachers also earn well above the regional average salaries at every level of the pay scale so they are more than “competitive” with surrounding communities.
  • The City of Chicago has raised local taxes more than $1.1 billion dollars in the last year to pay for, among other things, pensions for teachers, police and firefighters.
  • Retired Chicago teachers get a 3% increase in their pensions every single year.
  • The average teacher salary in America is between $43K and $48K
  • The average income in Chicago is $69,000.

Butler recently organized members of the Chicago Parent Congress to pray in hope “that the Chicago Teachers Union would choose not to walk out on the children.”

I believe in a mighty God, and the power of prayer, and at the same time I know teachers’ unions are more likely to listen to parents when they rally to save a withering school – full of middle-class jobs for which students may never qualify – than to parents who pray for putting the interests of children above pay disputes.

In 2014 Inquisiter reported reported Lewis earned as much as $226,000 in annual compensation, and her portfolio included a $400,000 condo in Chicago and two vacation homes (one in Hawaii, and one Michigan).

A black child who leaves CPS incapable of reading, writing, and computing at grade-level can expect to earn nothing approaching what Lewis or her members earn.

Don’t say it’s for the kids, it’s not

Typically labor organizers do a good job of conflating their middle-class disputes with the interests of the poor students and parents in public schools. In a narcissistic and maddening perversion of logic we are to believe fattening the personal incomes of already fairly compensated teachers uplifts their subjects who are trapped in economically bleak circumstances.

A better focus might be on the unacceptable academic results of CPS and wonder what citizens get for their money. Black reading proficiency is below 20%, and in math it’s only 12%. That’s for kids in poverty. For middle-class students it’s only 41% and 27% respectively.

Those types of numbers bespeak a generation of young people who won’t qualify for college or meaningful work. Forty-seven percent of Chicago’s black men between ages 20 and 24 are out of work and out of school. We know what the means. Large groups of capable and worthy human beings are on track to become economic outcasts who can expect lives of stress, social alienation, and capture by an eagerly waiting criminal justice system.

That problem is only compounded by teachers’ strikes. The last time CPS faced a strike pastors and parents wanted the district and teachers to avoid disrupting the lives of low-income parents who couldn’t afford threats to their tenuous work-life situations. In a city constantly seeking solutions to guns and gangs, school is often the safest place to be.

For teachers to walk out on their students over a few dimes is probably the most morally broke and opposite of woke thing they could do.

It’s the budget, stupid

When teachers are mistreated or underpaid they have no choice but to withhold their labor and jolt the powers that be into better bargaining posture. None of us should ever discount the power of collective action and the right to strike. At the same time we can’t turn off our brains to the tangled politics and showy theatrics that hide the real issues in these disputes.

Often we’re sold a picture of uncaring bureaucrats who want to squeeze working people so hard they have to take Uber jobs to make up the difference. Sometimes that might be accurate. Other times it’s just juvenile theater spurred by the inability of labor to understand the finite nature of money.

In those times it feels like adults need to say “I understand you want a pony my Princess, but daddy just got laid off.”

This might be one of those times. For a district facing a $300 million budget deficit, this couldn’t be a worst time for teachers to be bad partners in task of addressing CPS’ financial issues.

Given their indifference to the needs of kids and the realities of CPS’ financial picture, and the CTU’s willingness to put everyone at risk but themselves, we might be learning that some of Chicago’s biggest thugs wear red t-shirts.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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