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‘Day of Action’ is a Testing Day for the CTU

Chicago Teachers Union member and CPS parent, Johnae Strong, speaks March 23 after CTU President Karen Lewis announced a one-day walk out for April 1. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

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It’s Testing Day for the Chicago Teachers Union.

The turnout on the picket lines on Friday — and the number of teachers who cross the line and go to work — will be a measure of the extent to which the union truly represents all the public school teachers of Chicago.

Scoring the results won’t be simple. Undoubtedly, the number of teachers who don’t honor the one-day strike will be small, but that number won’t include a larger number of dissenters who just stayed home or went through the motions of picketing. It is tough to cross the line, particularly because the union has threatened to penalize those who do so.

What also will make it difficult to score the walkout Testing Day is that the Chicago Teachers Union has been busily revising the answer key.

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To the question, “What is this walkout about?” the correct answer at first was that it was a protest of Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool’s decision that CPS would no longer do the “pension pickup,” paying much of the teachers’ share of pension costs.

Then that “correct” answer was erased. The new correct answer was that the walkout was to protest CPS’ refusal to pay “step and lane” pay increases while there is no new contract.

That answer was rubbed out, too. Apparently to gather greater public support, the CTU said the real purpose was to call attention to Springfield’s failure to fund schools properly.

Another possible answer — never stated by the CTU — is that walkout is, at least in part, designed to placate the union’s militant wing, which is seething over a deal with CPS the leadership negotiated, but that the militants rejected. Karen Lewis is facing re-election as union president in May, and the union hasn’t yet announced whether she will be challenged.

Further confusing the issue is a demand by one of the CTU’s “Day of Action” coalition partners — Black Youth Project 100 — to redirect money now spent on police to “fund our communities and things that we need.”

That’s a way to get money for schools, but most Chicagoans sure don’t want to cut back on policing at a time when homicides and shootings are on the rise.

Of those answers, we think the best — the one the CTU should have stuck with all along — is calling attention to how Springfield is underfunding public education at all levels. But a one-day walkout — which CPS says is illegal — is not the best way to rally public opinion around that idea. Too many people outside the city will interpret it as a routine job action by teachers. Gov. Bruce Rauner will see it as a justification for crushing the union, particularly because he can argue the walkout is lawless. The union doesn’t agree, but it’s already lost that argument in front of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

Any momentum generated by the Day of Action should be redirected to a joint effort by school officials, the union and other groups to boost education funding by the state, which is shirking its constitutional responsibility to fund schools.

CPS already is desperately short of money, and when June 30 rolls around, it will have to come up with $676 million for a pension payment. The school district already has been chopping away at costs, and without more money it can’t hope to balance its budget without painful reductions in salaries and pensions.

Fixing schools in Chicago and the rest of the state will require more revenue. It is going to mean raising the state income tax, which should be restructured to be progressive, and/or expanding the sales tax to cover many more services.

But even if Springfield — which is unable to assemble an annual budget these days — agrees to raise a meaningful amount of new revenue, schools will be in line with vastly underfunded pensions, crumbling infrastructure and other needs.

Test Day for the CTU means realizing that even if the state eventually comes through, CPS can’t throw money around in the current teacher contract negotiations. As teachers should know, that’s simple arithmetic.

At the end of the Day of Action, we’ll know how the CTU scored on its walkout test. Going forward, we hope it gets its answers right on the rest of the exam.

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