Chicago After the Teachers Union Strike

Back to July 2013 Ed Reporter

Chicago After the Teachers Union Strike

The seven-day Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike last fall is long over, but fallout from it is ongoing. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) faces a $1 billion budget deficit, partially fueled by teacher salary increases agreed to in order to end the strike. The district will close 50 schools, including about 10% of all elementary schools. The Chicago school closings are the largest in American history.

As a result of the school shutdowns, 663 employees will be laid off, including teachers, teaching assistants, and bus aides. Those to be laid off include 420 tenured teachers whose performance is rated satisfactory or unsatisfactory. The union contract allows teachers who are rated excellent or superior to be reassigned within the district (Chicago Tribune, 6-15-13).

Despite facing massive budget deficits, Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave CTU teachers salary increases in order to settle the strike. The union accepted raises of 17% for teachers, although they had asked for a 30% increase. Chicago teachers are among the highest paid in the nation.

Recently re-elected CTU union president Karen Lewis points to many reasons for Chicago’s failing schools, but the Chicago teachers union isn’t among them. Lewis was the less-radical candidate in the union election. A faction of the union was unhappy with Lewis, claiming that she failed to gain sufficient rewards to teachers before ending the strike.

Lewis and the CTU have filed three lawsuits against the city of Chicago over the school closings. The CTU claims that the closings are motivated by racial discrimination. The union also blames charter school proliferation for school closures, although the popularity of charter schools is a direct result of traditional public schools’ failure to educate students. National Assessment of Educational Progress results show that in 2011, only about 20% of Chicago 4th-graders could do math at grade level and only about 18% were reading at grade level.

Lewis said in a June 18 speech to the City Club of Chicago, “Rich, white people think they know what’s in the best interest of children of African Americans and Latinos — no matter what the parent’s income or education level.” According to Lewis, the antidote to poor education in Chicago is: progressive taxation; ending corporate tax subsidies and loopholes; higher property taxes; and enactment of a financial transactions tax and a commuter tax (Chicago Tribune, 6-19-13).

Commenting on Lewis’s City Club speech, the Education Action Group (EAG) wrote:

Some audience members must have been wondering if they were listening to the same union leader who, last September, led a teachers strike that forced the nearly bankrupt school district into doling out roughly $220 million in pay raises.

That money will have to come from somewhere else in CPS’s budget — probably student programs and activities. That means Lewis’s greedy CTU deserves some blame for the district’s woes.

But Lewis doesn’t want anybody to focus on that, which is why she played the race card during Tuesday’s speech.

And that’s why Lewis has a long list of excuses for CPS’s failures. As long as taxpayers are distracted by these minor issues (or nonissues), they won’t turn their attention to how Lewis’s union is destroying their neighborhood schools.

On May 3 the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America honored the Chicago Teachers Union by giving them an award. It stated, “In appreciation of its recent victories and in anticipation of more to come. . . .” The socialists said the union had “shown that organizing is more than just mobilization and that ‘defending a public good requires an organized public’. . . .” CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey accepted the award at the political group’s annual awards dinner.

Besides layoffs at the under-enrolled schools, even more employees will lose their jobs at five underperforming Chicago schools that are “turnarounds.” At turnaround schools, all employees are laid off and new staff is hired in an effort to correct previous performance failures.

An additional challenge faced by CPS is overcrowding at a few successful schools in the district. Families seek out these schools in order to ensure an adequate education for their children.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel blames the CPS closings on underperforming schools and declining enrollment, estimated to equal 145,000 students in the last decade. The dismal performance of city schools has resulted in families moving to the suburbs. The mayor says the result of closings will be that more students are in better schools.

Minorities make up 91% of all CPS students. Schools are most likely to close in neighborhoods where the recession has hit hardest. Lack of jobs, “foreclosure-induced empty homes,” and rising crime have “driven out many middle class families, and their school-aged kids have gone with them.” (CNN.com, 6-11-13)

Chicago politicians actively campaigned for schools in their own wards to remain open. Alderman Walter Burnett claimed closing one of two schools involved in a “decades-long gang rivalry between families at the two schools” would lead to violence. Alderman Carrie Austin was “concerned about Songhai Elementary being absorbed into Curtis Elementary because the two schools have a long history of feuding and violence.” She suggested that district officials “see it out of the eyes of safety, and not education.”

Closings are estimated to save the district $867 million in capital and operating expenses over the next ten years. Alderman Fioretti said, “This was a pivotal moment in the future of this city. [The Chicago Board of Education vote to close schools] will have a financial and psychological impact that will be devastating to our communities.” Union Pres. Lewis said, “Closing schools is not an education plan. It is a scorched earth policy.” (Chicago Tribune, 5-22-13) The union threatens increased public protests in opposition to the school closures.