Luck does not vindicate intransigence

For the moment, it looks like the Chicago Public Schools system has dodged several bullets. With the impending infusion of up to $105 million in federal monies and the draining of its reserve funds, the District should be able to avoid the two most troubling consequences of its $370 million budget deficit: massive teachers layoffs and up to 30% increases in class size. While this is certainly good news for CPS students, it betrays some much larger concerns for the future of the city’s public education system.

I’m about to reveal some of my biases here, but keep in mind that I think both CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) share the responsibility for this situation reaching the point that it did.

Since 2009, CPS has laid-off more than 1,000 Central Office staff and frozen salaries for all non-union personnel. But with the severity of the crisis facing the District, even these measures were never going to be enough. Despite the fact that 69% of the CPS budget for fiscal year 2010 was for salaries and benefits, of which 94% went to unionized employees, CEO Ron Huberman still said that 72% of the budget cuts necessary to plug the deficit were strictly administrative. It would be grossly ignorant to say that CPS hasn’t done its part or was merely trying to bust up CTU by offering them other concessions – some of which had already been made by CPS personnel – to help alleviate the budget deficit.

With that in mind, I am outraged by CTU’s stubborn refusal to forego its scheduled 4% salary increase this year, or any of the other concessions offered by CPS to prevent further layoffs. The proposed freeze would not cut salaries, nor would it permanently forestall future increases. But thanks to Congress’ passage of an additional $26 billion in aid to the states, targeted towards school districts, state governments and emergency personnel, the union got its way. CTU president Karen Lewis: “We had to hold the line because we knew that money would be available from somewhere. I’m glad we did.”

This is b/s of the highest caliber. Yes, there are massive problems within CPS schools that require a sustained, and preferably increased, presence of high-quality teachers. Yes, tax-increment financing needs a thorough review. Yes, Springfield needs to do more to to support school districts. All of these things are true. But that does not subtract from the fact that a teacher’s first priority is to the students. The reasons given by CTU officials for its recalcitrant attitude, while very real problems, are unfortunately issues that will take time to solve, and certainly much more time than just one summer’s worth of pissing and moaning. While shedding light on such things is positive (and perhaps the current crisis will be a sufficient impetus for their realistic apprehension and creative problem-solving), it does not address the very immediate concern that school is imminent and teachers need to be in their classrooms, regardless of other issues.

What it boils down to is this: CTU, while ostensibly claiming to be the last bastion of student interest, is actually only acting in its own interest. This does not mean that the individual teachers who comprise its membership do not care about their students (the vast majority care very deeply), but that the organization is there to preserve itself, not the system in which it acts. If CTU really cared about the students, it would’ve bitten the bullet and take at least some of the concessions offered by CPS to help balance the budget, rather than waiting for a federal deus ex machina at the 11th hour. The above quote by Karen Lewis reveals just how strongly the union feels that it can go about its business with impunity, which is simply ridiculous. And I guarantee you that, despite the fact that it was federal dollars which saved the jobs of at least 1200 teachers, they will be just as obstinate in their resistance to change when the Department of Education and Congress come out with their plans for education reforms.

In short, it was luck (coupled with a willingness by the feds to sacrifice more and take on greater fiscal responsibility) that allowed these teachers to keep teaching. That does not mean that their methods were right.

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