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 Rampant Union Greed in Chicago

The Windy City’s teachers union is on the verge of yet another strike. 

In 2012, Troy Senik wrote “The Worst Union in America,” a title he bestowed on the California Teachers Association. As a former member and longtime critic of that union, I certainly had no quibble with his selection. But now, CTA is facing serious competition from the Chicago Teachers Union.

As reported in last week’s post, CTU, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, is gearing up for a strike. It would be the union’s second in four years, despite the fact that the median salary for a teacher in Chicago is $78,169. When you add another $27,564 for various benefits, the total compensation for a teacher – good, bad or middling – becomes almost $106K per annum. (Please keep in mind teachers work 180 days a year, while employees in other professions typically work for 240 to 250 days.) In retirement, the average Chicago teacher receives a hefty $50,000 a year.

The main sticking point for the union and the Chicago Public School system (CPS) is the so-called pension pick-up. Teachers there (and elsewhere) have what’s called a “defined benefit plan,” whereby in retirement – come hell, high water or recession – a teacher’s pension is not affected. In most places, teachers and the school district share the contributions equally, but not in Chicago and some other municipalities in Illinois. Teachers there are supposed to chip in 9 percent of their salary to fund their own pension. But as things stand now, teachers contribute just 2 percent, with the school district (read: taxpayer) picking up the remaining seven. The city, which is in dire fiscal straits, is asking teachers to pay the full 9 percent. But lest the poor teachers need to reach for the smelling salts because they are being asked to kick in more for their own retirement years, Chicago is offering them an 8.7 percent salary increase over four years to help offset the teachers’ pension payment.

So, as the union demands more and more money, the schools end up with less and less. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, CPS still needs to come up with at least $300 million to balance its fiscal 2017 budget. “The school system still faces huge, $700 million-ish teachers pension payments this year and annually into the future. It still has too much real estate to serve its dwindling number of students. And its credit is maxing out.” As a result, Moody’s has just downgraded CPS further into junk status.

As if the union’s insistence on yet more money is not deplorable enough, there is a new addition to their basket. When CTU held its strike vote last week, it didn’t do it the traditional way – by secret ballot. Nope, the union had its teachers authorize a strike via “petitions” circulated at schools, meaning that everyone knew how everyone else voted. Think there may have been an intimidation factor at work here? And why on earth would they need to resort to such strong-arm tactics? The teachers voted by a 7 to 1 margin to strike in 2012 – when voting was done in private. As it turns out, the margin this year was 86 percent affirmative, just about what it was in 2012.

If the method of voting sounds dictatorial and totalitarian, it fits right in with the union’s leadership. CTU president Karen Lewis, who revels in her inflammatory style, makes Donald Trump look downright demure. Just a few of her egregious comments:

  • At the City Club of Chicago in 2013, she blamed the city’s education woes on rich white people. “When will we address the fact that 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.”
  • After the tragic Sandy Hook school shootings, Lewis blamed Teach for America, the organization that successfully enlists high-achieving college graduates to teach at hard to staff schools. Referring to TFA vice-president David Rosenberg, Lewis said “… policies his colleagues support kill and disenfranchise children from schools across this nation.”
  • Earlier this year, Lewis compared the Illinois governor to ISIS: “Rauner is the new ISIS recruit. Yes, I said it, and I’ll say it again. Bruce Rauner is a liar. And, you know, I’ve been reading in the news lately all about these ISIS recruits popping up all over the place — has Homeland Security checked this man out yet? Because the things he’s doing look like acts of terror on poor and working-class people.”
  • Then there is the typical union boss hypocrisy: She rails against corporate “fat cats,” all the while pulling in over $200,000 a year, owning three homes, including one in Hawaii. (Second-in-command at CTU, Comrade Jesse Sharkey, a leading member of the revolutionary International Socialist Organization, makes well over $100,000 in total compensation.)

The teachers could strike as soon as October 11th. It’s up to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Rauner to stand up to the CTU leadership and their outrageous demands and put a halt to the mugging. Enough taxpayer money has been extorted by the union without the mayor and governor kicking in another penny. And the union can’t claim that its teachers are doing a bang-up job: Just 30 percent of 4th grade CPS students are proficient in math and by 8th grade that number sinks to 25 percent. In reading, 27 percent of 4th graders are proficient as are 24 percent of 8th graders. Taxpayers should not be expected to sink any more of their money into an ineffective school system.

As of now, the hard working people of Chicago – already the highest taxed in Illinois – are getting overpaid teachers, failing kids and a union that wears its greed proudly on its sleeve. CTA, you have some serious competition.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Union Greed

The Chicago teachers’ pension scam exemplifies what unions claim to hate most about corporations.

Chicago, long known as the Second City, may still be second in some things, but it seems to be #1 in teacher union greed. As it’s time for a new contract with the Chicago public school system (CPS), the inevitable blather has begun to befoul the air. Here are a few things Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) will not use as talking points:

  • Teachers in CPS are the second highest paid in the country, making barely less than New York City’s teachers.
  • On the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 30 percent of 4th graders and 25 percent of 8th graders tested as “proficient” in mathematics, and only 27 and 24 percent, respectively, were found to be proficient in reading.
  • Teachers only contribute 2 percent of their salary to their own retirement; CPS kicks in the the other 7 percent, the so-called pension pick-up .
  • Chicagoans are the most taxed people in Illinois and their already crisis-level pension shortfall is in freefall.

The economic situation is so bad in Chicago that Illinois governor Bruce Rauner has been making noises about CPS declaring bankruptcy. If successful, the state would take over the district, void the contact with CTU and possibly reduce pension payments. Needless to say the union and its enablers in the Illinois statehouse are not happy at the prospect and claim it is not legal under existing statutes.

In the meantime, to placate CTU, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed a contract so generous that Rauner called it “unaffordable.” It was one-sided enough, however, that CTU boss Karen Lewis liked it. It offered:

  • A guarantee of no economic layoffs through the end of the contract in 2019; the only way to reduce the workforce would be through retirements and attrition.
  • Cost-of-living pay increases.
  • “Step and lane” pay increases based on experience and seniority.
  • No more new charter schools beyond the 130 presently operating; the only new ones allowed would be replacements for any that closed.

Amazingly, the union’s bargaining team rejected the deal, infuriating CPS CEO Forrest Claypool. In response, he fired off a terse letter to Karen Lewis emphasizing three unilateral moves CPS would now make:

  • The district will discontinue the pension pick-up, saving CPS $130 billion annually.
  • A reduction-in-force plan will go into effect that will necessitate layoffs and save another $50 million.
  • Repurposed federal funds will result in a “reduction in general funding to the schools while having no significant overall impact on school budgets.”

Well, as Larry Elder would say, “Then the fit hit the shan.” The union called the letter an “attack” and an “act of war.” The unionistas were especially exercised about the withdrawal of the pension pick-up, but their stance is indefensible. In the Windy City, teachers are obligated by law to contribute 9 percent to their retirement. But in fact, for 35 years CPS (i.e. the taxpayers) has been picking up 7 of the 9 percent. So teachers have been getting away with legal theft, paying only 2 percent of their own retirement contribution, which has helped to position Illinois as the state with the worst credit rating in the U.S.

Moreover, please keep in mind that Chicago has the second highest paid teachers in the country, with a median salary of $71,017, not counting comprehensive healthcare benefits for the teacher, their spouse or domestic partner and children. Also, the average teacher salary is 51 percent higher than Chicago’s median household income, which is estimated at $46,877. And teachers work just 178 instructional days (plus a few non-instructional ones), whereas other full-time workers toil for 240-250 days a year.

But some teachers were outraged at Claypool’s letter and about a thousand of them tore through the Loop aiming their venomous arrows at Bank of America. Sixteen were arrested for sitting in and chanting inside the bank. As Karen Lewis said, “(We’re) here, because we have to make a choice in the city: banks or schools.” (Don’t we need both?) The teachers also disrupted rush hour traffic, inconveniencing thousands of commuters. Ms. Lewis didn’t explain what the demonstrators had against people driving home at rush hour, many of whom pay a lot more than their “fair share” to the teachers’ pension fund.

At the end of the day, probably the best thing would be for CPS to declare bankruptcy, as Rauner proposed. It’s a novel approach, but one that, at first glance, would seem to have little chance of implementation. However, the Republican governor claims that Democrats outside of Chicago are in favor of it because hitting the reset button would void union contracts, thus saving taxpayers all over the state mountains of unnecessary debt. Declaring bankruptcy could also set a precedent. (Take note Los Angeles: LAUSD is due to go belly-up in 2019.)

Final note to union leaders, protesting teachers and fellow travelers: You are obviously looking out for yourselves. Fine. But please stop using “corporate greed” as a rallying cry. When you scream that “corporations must pay their fair share,” please be assured that they already do and then some. Federal tax rates on corporate income vary from 15 percent to 39 percent. Teachers unions – and in fact all unions – don’t pay a penny in income tax. They not only don’t pay their fair share; they pay no share at all. Now that’s what I call greed, with maybe a little gluttony added for taste.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

The Strange Politics of Education Reform

… where conservatives demand change and many alleged progressives, including teacher union elites, are really reactionary.

While this may be old news to some, it can’t be said enough: In our polarized times, education reform is the only truly bipartisan issue, whereas with other matters things invariably break down into Republican vs. Democrat, liberal vs. conservative, libertarian vs. conservative (social issues), libertarian vs. liberal (fiscal issues), etc. 

But in the world of edu-politics, folks from the conservative Heritage Foundation have made common cause with their counterparts at the libertarian Reason Foundation with plenty of room in the big tent for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  

Though not the main theme of an excellent blog post, “Grabbing the Bull By The Horns: Cuomo, Nutter and the Backlash Against Making Sh*t Up,” DFER executive director Joe Williams indirectly points to the odd political bedfellows who are pushing for much needed changes in education.

Williams begins his piece by writing, 

If you’ve ever been the subject of a blog-tirade by either of the Klonsky Brothers or Leo Casey, you understand that these old school reactionaries have made decades-long careers out of pushing bogus propaganda for their cause, i.e. they make sh*t up and hope that nobody calls them on it. 

The joke here is that both Casey and the Klonsky brothers come from Marxist backgrounds but really are, when it comes to education reform, not progressives but reactionaries – fervently protective of the status quo – blindly pro-union, claiming that more money will solve our education woes, all the while fighting against every meaningful way of improving the system. 

On the other hand, we have some big city liberal mayors who are trying to do the right thing in tough fiscal times. Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter and New York’s Andrew Cuomo have closed some poorly attended failing schools. So what’s the problem? The teachers unions in those cities, who profess to be all about the kids, social justice and progressivism, pound the table and insist that our outdated 19th Century Prussian-style zip-code mandated school system continue without any innovation, just more money. These unions desperately fight to maintain the status quo and snuff any real reform – charter schools, vouchers, online schools, etc. As such, it’s time we start tarring union leaders with the reactionary brush. 

And while we are talking reactionaries, perhaps their poster child should be Diane Ravitch. She was a liberal before she became conservative before she became a progressive, but she’s really a reactionary. (She is wrong about so much that she should get an award for “Yes I can make this sh*t up.”) In fact, researcher Jay Greene set aside an entire week on his blog to debunk her endless reactionary blather, which he titled “Ravitch is Wrong Week.” 

And as I wrote last week, Louisiana’s Republican governor Bobby Jindal is trying to do his best for kids by expanding his state’s popular voucher program, only to be slapped down by the allegedly progressive Eric Holder. In reality, our attorney general is doing his best to emulate George Wallace, the segregationist and reactionary former governor of Alabama. 

Then there are those whom the teachers unions love to hurl “right wing” epithets at, like the admittedly conservative Heritage Foundation. There, policy expert Lindsey Burke regularly promotes various decidedly un-reactionary reforms – vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts, etc. Sounds like Ms. Burke is trying to get us out of a complacent, dare I say, reactionary rut. 

Meanwhile, over at the Reason Foundation the decidedly un-reactionary director of education Lisa Snell regularly writes about the importance and benefits of school choice. 

We live in a time where the biggest enemies of change are the teachers unions. They and their fellow travelers espouse progressivism but in reality are clinging to a moribund education system that’s desperately in need of fundamental change. So I guess when you want to get things done in edu-world, look to those who are truly trying to effect real change – conservatives, libertarians and DFER-type liberals, not reactionaries in progressive clothing.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Chicago Teacher Strike Pits Liberal Democrats Against Unions

Chicago’s public school teachers went on strike last week over a modest plan to extend their work day and subject them to the type of standardized performance testing they typically administer to students.

The walkout provided a fresh reminder that teachers unions exist to expand the pay and protections for teachers, not to help “the children.” Unions protect their worst-performing members, which is why Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s testing plan caused so much angst.

We’ve all read examples of unions coddling rotten apples – layoffs of the “teacher of the year” because seniority trumps performance, and those “rubber rooms” where accused educational miscreants spend their days collecting full pay as the case against them is adjudicated in a disciplinary process designed to insulate teachers from accountability.

The only thing that makes teachers’ unions more angry than having their members subjected to performance tests are plans to subject them to competition through charter schools and tuition vouchers.

Note also the type of people who rise to union leadership. The only enjoyable aspect of the Chicago-strike spectacle is watching two bullies – Emanuel and the leader of the union – battle it out in front of the TV cameras.

It also was interesting to see how the strike split the Democratic coalition. As the New York Times reported, “The strike pits several core components of the Democratic coalition against one another: The teachers’ union and much of organized labor are on a war footing against [Emanuel]. … What is more, the strike pits organized labor against myriad wealthy liberals – vital donors to Democratic coffers – many of whom contribute heavily to efforts to finance charter schools and weaken teachers’ unions.”

Even though the reforms were pushed by Mayor Emanuel, a former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, the Obama administration refused to weigh in on the matter. Obviously, a public school labor dispute is not a federal issue, but Obama rarely recognizes any constitutional limits on anything. He could have used this nationally publicized strike as one of those “teachable moments,” but we understand his silence. He didn’t want to anger the unions.

Short-term politics aside, the spectacle was depressing when one considers what’s at stake – the success of students held hostage by the mismanaged and bureaucratic Chicago school system. And, whatever progress Emanuel makes under the settlement, the system will slog along in its current shape, one way or another.

Too few Democrats believe in any sort of reform beyond throwing more taxpayer dollars at a dysfunctional government school monopoly controlled – from the classroom to the school board – almost completely by teachers’ unions.

Here in California, the state constitution mandates that about 40 percent of the general-fund budget go to public K-14 education, in addition to the federal funds and local bond dollars sent to the schools. Yet the state’s leaders cannot come up with any better idea for uplifting the state’s students than finding more tax dollars to fund the current system. Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30 tax-increase measure is packaged as a boost in education funding. This debate over the quality of education has been going on my entire life, and the same folks call for the same solutions (more money!) and nothing ever changes. Is it any wonder?

It was Emanuel who said, famously, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” His critics portrayed that statement as an expression of cynicism, but it’s something all politicians know.

The current scarcity of public dollars offers an opportunity to talk about the issues that really matter, from education reform to pension reform. Unfortunately, the nation’s educational problems need a more radical fix than any politician from either party is willing to consider.

The best news about the Chicago strike was that a prominent Democratic official was at least willing to take on the unions, even though he may not have come away with much.

Republicans tend to represent suburban and rural school districts, where education is tolerable. California education expert Lance Izumi penned a book about suburban school districts, “Not As Good As You Think,” detailing the mediocrity of even the best public schools.

But it’s easy to be complacent in safe communities where parents plaster “Student of the Month” bumper stickers on their minivans and their kids typically head off to good colleges after graduation.

In urban areas, education can be dismal. These districts often have the highest per-capita student spending in the nation. Because the worst schools are in the most-solidly Democratic areas, we will see more serious Democratic officials taking on the biggest obstacle to reform, the unions.

There’s a reason low-income parents jump through hoops to try to get their kids enrolled in charter schools. Those schools have been freed from the teachers’ union stranglehold.

Instead of siding with the poor and downtrodden, however, most liberal writers align with the powerful and privileged teachers’ unions.

As Sally Kohn wrote last week in Salon, “The teachers and teachers unions who work in these districts to try to help are part of the solution. Poverty, homelessness and the dramatic funding cuts to social services that help needy families, as well as the cuts to public education, are the problem.”

Liberals used to insist that every child deserves a great education.

Now, thanks to their closeness with unions that protect an arcane education system built on an industrial labor-union model, liberals are saying that we can’t help poor kids until we eliminate poverty and create Nirvana. Haven’t they seen the great success of Catholic schools and charter schools located in tough urban areas? Why are they so willing to leave so many poor kids behind?

Americans should applaud Emanuel’s willingness to take on the Chicago teachers union. But the only solution to the nation’s failing school model is to break it up and create a system based on competition and incentives.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.