Choice and Accountability are the Solution to Chicago Teachers' Strike

September 13, 2012 J

The Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) current strike underscores the desperate need for a new approach to educating our youth. There must be an increased accountability for teachers coupled with the freedom for parents to choose the most appropriate school for their children. CTU claims that the Chicago Public School system’s recent attempt to increase teacher accountability by basing evaluations on standardized testing places them at an unfair risk of losing their jobs. However, the situation has become a ridiculous showcase of union power as they push for a massive 30% wage increase.

Illinois labor laws give the unions an extraordinary amount of power over federal, state, and local authorities. They extend “Exclusive Representation” to include the local as well as state authorities. Exclusive representation means that union officials represent all workers regardless of one’s opinion of the union. The CTU also enjoys the benefit of non-member fair share payments and can charge a fee to all public school teachers so long as it does not exceed the dues of the union members. This solidifies constant revenue for a union even with dwindling membership. Further accompanying this leverage for the union, the government is forced to come to the table and negotiate when a union projects a level of dissatisfaction with their working environment, schedule, or wages. Keep in mind that Chicago schools already have the shortest school day and school year of the ten largest cities in the country. Moreover, the average public school teacher earns $76,000 before benefits—a generous level compared to the $47,000 average for teacher salary at many local charter schools like Urban Prep Academy.

Throwing more money at Chicago’s broken public school system will not fix it. Four out of every ten children entering their high school freshman year in Chicago will not graduate. Only 15% of fourth graders are considered proficient in reading. The CTU has greatly contributed to this dysfunctional educational system and nothing has been done to hold their teaching in the classroom accountable. In an attempt to satisfy the CTU’s disapproval of a 20% increase in hours and the change to a merit pay system, CPS proposed a more-than generous 16% increase in wages amounting to a $400 million increased expenditure, which the CTU promptly rejected.

Currently, CPS teachers enjoy the highest average salary in the country, which unfortunately cannot be said about their graduation rates. One can see why the CTU under the authority of exclusive representation has responded so negatively to the proposed merit pay system and increased hours; they receive hundreds of dollars a year from every worker for dues regardless of membership status. Thus, they expand the base of labor to expand their revenue. CPS teachers also pay only 3% of their healthcare costs. Teacher pensions in 2013 will total $429 million as PK-12 funding reaches $1.6 billion. In 2014, teacher pensions will reach $912 million with PK-12 funding growing to $1.7 billion. The power given under exclusive representation is an incentive for corruption and encourages the never-ending fight for higher wages as well as harms the ability for effective education.

Facing these seemingly insurmountable challenges towards solving the education problems in Chicago, innovative and proven techniques must be implemented immediately. Increasing choice for parents will serve to hold teachers accountable. Take for instance the charter school system in Chicago, which holds 9 of the top 10 highest average ACT scores in the city.  The classic rebuttal of charter school success is that they cherry pick the best students.  In Chicago, this just isn’t true.

Take for example Noble Street Rauner College Prep: 98% of their students are minorities compared with 91% in CPS; 87% are low-income compared with 88% in CPS; and 12% are special needs students compared with 14% in CPS. Instructional time for the school of 592 students is 7.13 hours, and Noble students spend 10.6 more months in the classroom than a traditional Chicago public high school over a four year period. Furthermore, the Nobel Street system—containing 10 schools—accomplishes their success by spending on average several thousand dollars less than their CPS counterparts per student. Through all of their success, the average salary amounts to $49,851. The results?  In 2011, 85% of Noble students enrolled in four year colleges; in 2012, 100% of the class was accepted into higher education. Charter schools succeed because of choice and accountability, despite spending less money with nearly identical demographics.

Chicago’s ailments are due to a CTU monopoly over labor and an incompetence to face these foes that stand as a direct impediment to a reform in education.

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