Kids Are Not the Priority for Chicago Teachers Union

(Editor’s Note: Illinois Policy Institute President John Tillman published this article just as Chicago Public School system teachers prepared to strike this week.  Tillman is the Opening Speaker at 2012 Georgia Legislative Policy Forum on Friday, September 21 at the W Hotel in Atlanta.)

By John Tillman

John Tillman, President, Illinois Policy Institute

Now that Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has announced that CTU will strike Monday morning, it is very clear: Children are not the top priority for teachers who belong to the Chicago Teachers Union. The two things that matter most to these teachers are money and avoiding accountability for poor performance.

Lewis and the CTU waited hours to announce the teacher walkout so they could hold a live press conference at the top of the 10 p.m. news hour. This focus on press impact rather than the impact on children’s and parents’ lives should once and for all tell Chicago Public School negotiators and Mayor Emanuel this: The time is now for the transformative reforms the children and parents need. The Mayor and CPS should pull all offers from the table and reset the negotiations.

The fiscal reality is that Chicago Public Schools are broke. CPS will be draining cash reserves this year just to stay afloat, and will be $1 billion in the red next school year. The 30 percent raise CTU originally asked for is out of the question, and so are other double-digit raises that CTU has demanded. Average teacher pay in Chicago is already at $71,000 without benefits, while the average Chicagoan makes only $30,203 and the unemployment rate in the city is nearly 11 percent.

The reality facing students is much more grim. Four out of 10 children who enter a CPS high school will not graduate. That’s why the focus of these negotiations should be on reforms that empower parents rather than perpetuating a broken system. Monday morning, more than 80,000 kids in Chicago will show up to be taught in charter schools or independent private schools, and those teachers will be showing up to work – unlike the teachers who belong to the CTU. These schools have something in common that is different from those CPS schools that will not operate tomorrow: the CTU is not the monopoly provider of labor to those schools.

At minimum, CPS must put the option of merit pay back on the table. Chicago cannot be a place where bad teachers are protected at the expense of great teachers who deserve to be recognized and rewarded. And Chicago must allow for more educational competition. As Milton Friedman said, “The only solution is to break the monopoly, introduce competition and give the customers alternatives.” By expanding the number of charter schools and establishing opportunity scholarships, we can begin to chip away at the monopoly that the Chicago Teachers Union has over the city’s educational system. We must empower parents to choose what is best for their children, instead of letting Karen Lewis decide when kids can and cannot learn.

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