Recently, public school teachers in Chicago exercised their “right to strike.” To even a casual observer, it seemed strange that this group of the highest paid public school teachers in the nation felt so mistreated that they would deprive the children they claim to serve of the education they are paid to provide. In a city where the average worker earns roughly $45k/year, these public school teachers average $73K/year with a 5¾ hour work day, no work in the summer, extended holiday break, and sweetheart pension and benefits packages.
A major reason for the strike, aside from the obvious fact that the teachers wanted more money, is that they did not want to be held accountable for student performance. Looking at the statistics, this is certainly understandable. Chicago ranks among the worst performing public school districts in America. Students of all grade levels consistently score well below national average levels in Math and English, and barely half the students who enter high school eventually graduate.
So with teacher’s wages near national highs and performance near national lows, these teachers decided that they should take to the streets. The end result seems to be a win for the teachers. They were able to negotiate a 17.6% pay raise over four years. Though this number fell short of the 30% increase the union was initially demanding, it’s not bad considering that the city was already projecting a $3 trillion deficit over the next three years. The teachers were also able to take the teeth out of a proposed pay program that sought to increased emphasis on student test scores. They even managed to procure health insurance increases and protect automatic seniority pay increases.
This story garnered national attention and inspired emotionally charged reactions from those on both sides of the debate. Those who backed the teacher’s actions were by and large people with some connection to the teaching profession or those whose political ideologies marry them automatically to union action of any kind. Their arguments consisted of a few emotionally-based talking points. Proponents of the strike claimed that it was all done for the good of the kids. They claimed the strike would address problems with overflowing classes and terrible conditions. Strike advocates expounded on the difficulties and fundamental importance of the teaching profession, and how teachers across the country are underpaid and underappreciated. Another common contention was that unionization is the only way to prevent the “little guy” from being exploited by “The Man” and it is essential to our economy.
These arguments cannot stand up to even slight scrutiny, given the reality of the situation. For one, it requires great leaps in logic to arrive at the idea that any of this political posturing has helped the students at all. They ended up sitting home, being deprived of education; in a school district that is already failing them on every level. The meager two percent of students that have somehow managed to rise above the system and achieve advanced scores will certainly be even further handicapped in their attempt to keep pace with students in better educational systems. The student’s educations were held hostage while a ransom was negotiated by union heads and politicians. A party that was absent at the negotiations will ultimately shoulder the cost. It will be the tax payers, the children’s providers, who will be forced to pay the ransom through taxes.
Unfortunately for the students, taxation is not the only trick politicians have to appease their union masters. When there is no more money to be found in the present, future benefits and pension packages are promised. Seventy cents of every dollar spent on Illinois public education in the last 5 years has gone to fund teacher retirement plans. Sadly, the politicians making these irresponsible promises will be long retired on their own publicly funded pensions, with legacies intact, when the bill comes due. By then the students, having reached working age, will be burdened with the cost.
The paradox of the teachers’ demand for higher pay with smaller class size is also problematic. With a finite amount of money, increased pay eliminates the possibility of hiring more teachers. Without increasing the number of teacher there can be no hope for smaller classes.
The unions are correct that bureaucratic intervention and standardized test scores are not the best way to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers. Far more effective would be the market checks that would result from a privatized educational system. The combination of a of freely acting people trying to find the best education for their kids combined with wage incentive for teachers striving to prove their value and quality would render the seemingly complicated issues surrounding this conflict mute. But something tells me the Chicago teachers would not agree with me on the virtues of free markets.
Public sector unions operate in a different kind of market altogether. They make massive campaign donations in order to buy political favors (pensions, benefits, higher salaries). Once elected the bought and paid for politicians repay the unions for their campaign contributions. This system bankrupts cities and bleeds the tax payer, resulting in only short term benefits to the union members and the politicians. We can all see that this coercive system is clearly unsustainable, and morally reprehensible.
It should not be surprising that the teachers want more money. Almost everyone thinks his or her job should pay them more. Teachers are not inherently lazy or greedy; it is simply human nature to seek improvements to one’s lot in life. Instead, it is the system itself that has failed all concerned parties here. Discussing the difficulty of the job and trying to determine exactly how much teachers should be paid is not the real question – that debate could never be resolved. The true problem is with how public sector unions work in general.
At what point does a right to unionize become an excuse to extort the tax payers? Would Chicago tax payers allow this predatory situation to continue if they had had better teachers growing up?
Jake Berube is a writer based in Washington D.C.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kaavya Ramesh