The “Great for Students” Chicago Teachers Strike

Only in the bizarro world of education politics would a teachers union strike that shut down schools for a week, affecting 350,000 students, be hailed as “great for students” and an exemplar of “union and management coming together to create great public schools, to make sure every single school is a school of choice.” But that’s exactly how U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan characterized the Chicago Teachers Union strike from last month.

Here are some of the details Duncan apparently missed. The CTU is touting the deal with Chicago Public Schools, approved by 79 percent of its members, as historic. The agreement is good for three years, not four, which means it will have to be renegotiated during the mayoral election.

CTU members are nothing if not astute political animals since this timing effectively makes paying for the $295 million deal some one else’s problem—most likely cash-strapped taxpayers. Here’s what those taxpayers are getting for their money. Teacher pay increases are guaranteed at 3 percent in year one, and 2 percent in years two and three. Time served, not performance, determines salaries. Student performance growth will count for 30 percent of teachers’ evaluations, but they have no real teeth for tenured teachers. A longer school week also goes into effect in exchange for not extending current teachers’ roughly five-hour work days. This feat’s being accomplished by hiring back nearly 500 laid off teachers in non core subjects.

In the end, Chicago teachers essentially got a lot more while students got stuck with a whole lot more of the same.

Prior to the deal CPS teachers were already some of the highest paid in the country, making an average of $76,000 per year, excluding benefits.  In contrast Illinois taxpayers’ average family income is $47,000 per year.

When asked why the CTU couldn’t have reached a deal without striking, Duncan demurred, saying “it was a difficult journey to get there” (starting at 20 seconds). While he said he didn’t know all of the details, he views the CTU strike as a microcosm for the kind of “tough-minded collaboration” going on all around the country to make “great public schools” that are all “schools of choice.”


Chicago public schools were shut down for a week. Is Duncan suggesting that Chicago parents have a wealth of education options but just thought CPS were worth the wait? Is he intimating that Chicago public school parents could have used one of the state’s tax-credit or voucher scholarship programs to attend a private school? Whoops—Illinois doesn’t have one of those programs. (It does have a $500 tax credit for educational expenses, though—but that doesn’t help public school students locked out of classrooms because the grown-ups are engaged in “tough-minded collaboration.”)

Is Duncan recommending that Chicago parents exercise their rights under the state’s parent trigger law? Whoops again—Illinois isn’t one of the seven states that allows parents to take over failing—or in this case, closed—public schools.

In the end, CPS is still stuck with a $665 million deficit, nearly another $340 million in pension back-payments, contributing to a virtually bankrupt teacher pension retirement system, and now the CTU deal.

But hey, when it’s “for the children,” what’s a few hundred million dollars here and there?

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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