The messy Chicago teachers’ strike

by Grace

The Chicago teachers’ strike has entered its second week after teachers decided they need more time to review the tentative contract.  Calling the strike illegal, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is asking the court to force the teachers back to the classrooms.

The major issues are teacher evaluations, job security, and a longer school day.  

Chicago public schools have problems.

… 99.7% of Chicago teachers are rated satisfactory while the graduation rate is just 60%, only 20% of eighth-graders are proficient in reading and less than 8% of 11th-graders are college-ready on state tests….

… The average Chicago public-school teacher is the best-paid in the country, making between $71,000 (the union’s calculation) and $76,000 (the city’s). And that’s not counting benefits and pensions, paid days off, summer vacation and more. Teachers in New York and Los Angeles earn slightly less, and then the list drops off dramatically, with Dallas and Miami paying around $53,000 on average.

Even with dismal academic results and with a seemingly generous contract offer of a 16% raise over four years, 47% of registered voters support the striking teachers while only 39% oppose it.  Among the reasons for the public’s backing:

General pro-union sentiment

Unions are still hallowed organizations in Chicago, and the teachers union holds a special place of honor in many households where children often grow up to join the same police, firefighter or trade unions as their parents and grandparents.

The union won the PR battle.

To win friends, the union has engaged in something of a publicity campaign, telling parents repeatedly about problems with schools and the barriers that have made it more difficult to serve their kids. They cite classrooms that are stifling hot without air conditioning, important books that are unavailable and supplies as basic as toilet paper that are sometimes in short supply.

“They’ve been keeping me informed about that for months and months,” Grant said.

It was a shrewd tactic, said Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“This union figured out they couldn’t assume the public would be on their side so they went out and actively engaged in getting parent support,” Bruno said. “They worked like the devil to get it.”

Even though they may be unhappy with schools in general, parents tend to like the teachers they know.

… People generally like their kids’ teachers. Even those who may dislike the union like their teachers. They may agree with the notion of stronger assessments for teachers and perhaps also be against the union call for automatically rehiring those laid-off when vacancies do occur. But they like their teachers and so cast their lot with them.

It’s a dynamic at play whenever the under-performing Chicago system, which is beset by huge deficits, tries to close or consolidates schools. The school board usually gets its way but not before a very public uproar. Even parents at what are clearly low quality, poorly performing schools rise to protest. There’s a bond that blinds them to larger realities but ties them to that neighborhood building without any air conditioning.

Even after this strike is resolved, serious pension issues portend more education troubles ahead.  In Illinois, 71 cents of every new state education dollar goes to teachers’ retirement benefits, not to schools.  Earlier this year the state’s cedit rating was downgraded due to pension problems.

The teachers’ fund is one of the country’s worst-financed statewide pension systems, reporting that it is only 47 percent funded. And that’s if you buy the system’s rosy accounting assumptions, including that it will achieve 8.5 percent annual returns on its assets. This level is tied for the most aggressive investment assumption among state pension funds in the country, and the fund has had to get creative in an effort to meet it. Pensions & Investments magazine says it has the fourth-riskiest pension investment portfolio in the U.S., with less than 17 percent of its investments in fixed income and cash.
Illinois Is Pension Basket Case You Forgot About (Bloomberg)

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3 Comments to “The messy Chicago teachers’ strike”

  1. Apparently state laws give administrators lots of flexibility in the methods used to fund pensions, including making unreasonable assumptions about expected returns, postponing payments way into the future, and allowing money allocated for pensions to be used for other vote-producing purposes. At the root of the problem is that career politicians can make promises in exchange for union votes, with the taxpayer poorly represented when these deals are made. And funding can be postponed indefinitely.

  2. I wonder if part of the reason/justification for less stringent rules and generally more lax attitude for government pension funding has to do with the mentality that payments are backed by the “full faith and credit” of the government. IOW, except for a municipality or state declaring bankruptcy, taxpayers will always be on the hook for paying public pensions. So when these deals are being made, both parties feel they can be reckless now because ultimately the “government” will take care of paying the piper later on.

  3. I’m just hoping the union head taught English in her former life.

    “Hot buttery mess” is pretty brilliant.

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