Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis

Opinion: Chicago Teachers Union can help CPS avoid layoffs

Earlier this week, the Chicago Teachers Union announced that 97 percent of its members supported going on strike in a “practice” ballot initiative. Some media outfits dutifully reported the results. Unfortunately, they aren’t true.

The word “strike” never appears on the ballot. Instead, members were asked about various union demands in their ongoing contract negotiations with the Chicago Public Schools. The union falsely characterized this as a “strike” vote.


The vote comes at a time when CPS is desperately trying to find $486 million to balance its current budget and avoid massive layoffs in the second half of the school year. The gap is largely caused by a unique, long-standing arrangement among CPS, the state and the union that requires Chicago to pay for its teacher pensions rather than the state, which covers pensions for every other school district in Illinois.

A spending bill that would have provided $200 million from Springfield to help pay CPS pension costs failed to pass the legislature last spring, in part because the union withheld support. CPS is still holding out hope that the state will do something.

Chicago taxpayers, who just got hit with $700 million in new property taxes and fees to balance the city budget and fund, among other things, pensions for police and firefighters, will also be asked to cover part of the costs.

CPS is also asking teachers to cover a larger share of their own pensions. Currently the “employee” contribution for pensions is nine percent of a teacher’s salary but, years ago, CPS agreed to “pick-up” seven of the nine percent or about $130 million this year. All told, pensions are now costing the district over $600 million annually.

CPS Chief Executive Officer Forrest Claypool believes that if the state, city taxpayers and the teachers all share the burden, he can minimize or avoid teacher layoffs, cover pension costs and, most important, protect students. Absent such a solution, many teachers will lose their jobs, class sizes will rise and programs will be cut.

The CTU’s response, as we saw this week, was to engineer a phony vote threatening a strike. Nevertheless, the vote accurately reflects the sentiment of many Chicago public school teachers who have been whipped into a frenzy of anger and mistrust by the union leadership. With CTU President Karen Lewis facing reelection in May, more heated rhetoric and saber-rattling is expected.

Meanwhile, Chicago parents are increasingly voting with their feet and abandoning Chicago’s traditional public schools.  Enrollment in traditional public schools has steadily declined for 15 years, even as results have improved in terms of graduation rates, college readiness and college enrollment.

At the same time, more than 60,000 Chicago students attend public charter schools today and thousands more are on waiting lists. Fully, 70 percent of high school students choose to attend schools outside their neighborhoods, including magnet schools, selective enrollment schools and public charter schools. Parents clearly care more about quality than about attendance boundaries.

Claypool has the management and political skills needed to stabilize the system. Mayor Emanuel has the political clout to pressure Springfield and win over Chicago taxpayers.

The wild card remains CTU President Lewis. She has the respect and support of her members, but she has yet to ask them to share responsibility for solving the current budget woes. Without her support, the Emanuel/Claypool plan doesn’t work and the inevitable alternative is to lay off thousands of teachers mid-year.

The optics of union teachers on the picket line and families disrupted, while 130 charter schools remain open, is something President Lewis and her members should fully consider before they walk out. It’s clear that CTU members will follow Karen Lewis but the question is where — to a shared solution or to the edge of the cliff.

Peter Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post, a Chicago-based non-profit organization supporting efforts to improve public schools.

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