By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute
Chicago public school teachers going on strike this week caused reverberations in far away places, and not just because the Chicago River flows the wrong way. After all, the former Obama Administration Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is the Mayor of Chicago. The Obama Administration Education Secretary Arne Duncan is from the Chicago school district. President Barack Obama is from Chicago, although we're not supposed to mention that because it's racist or something.
The battle between the district and the teachers is about one of the central issues of our time. Who ultimately runs the government, elected officials or the public employee union bosses? Former Governor Mitt Romney and Congressman Paul Ryan have sided with Mayor Emanuel. Obama has sided with... we'll get back to you on that after the next round of golf.
As with any question involving government spending and public employee unions, it's impossible to watch what's happening in Illinois without comparing the situation with what happened in Wisconsin. Right on cue, Milwaukee Teachers Education Association President Bob Peterson announced his solidarity with the striking teachers in Chicago. He even promised to wear red on Monday in support.
Wait a second. I thought blue was the color of the left these days, and that's why the Fist symbol is blue. Red was for the left (hence the red Che Guevara t-shirts) but that changed with President Bush, right? So red should be the color of Governor Scott Walker, except he had blue signs. I get so confused.
So Peterson promised to put on his red shirt and said in a blog post, "I support the Chicago teachers because their union, under the leadership of CTU President Karen Lewis, is standing up and saying what teachers throughout this country would like to say:
"Enough is enough!"
Okay, enough is enough, except it's never enough. Let's look at some hard facts down in Chicago.
EAG News reports 1,500 teachers in the Chicago Public Schools already earn more than $100,000 (not including benefits) and the top-earning teacher earns more than $200,000. Union demands would put the average teacher salary at nearly six figures before benefits, according to the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI).
The school district is already the highest paying school district in the country for large metropolitan areas. They pay more than 40% more than their charter school counterparts. But enough is never enough.
Even if the union settles - settles - for a four-year 16% increase in pay, Chicago Public Schools is still facing a huge impending fiscal crisis. Earlier this year, the district raised taxes to the maximum, but the district will likely spend its reserves this year and be $1 billion in the hole the following year, according to IPI.
Emanuel is not killing public education in Chicago, public school teacher retirement plans are doing it. According to IPI, retirement costs will consume nearly half of education funding next year, and the amount will triple in two years.
Meanwhile, four in ten kids starting high school will not graduate. The schools are bad enough that, according to a Fordham study in 2004, 39% of Chicago Public School teachers send their kids to private schools. Good thing they can afford it.
Up in Wisconsin, school districts don't have to go off the proverbial fiscal cliff. The teachers unions are not pushing granny in a wheel chair off a mountain of property taxes. The legislature passed, and the governor signed, Act 10 last year which restored fiscal health to Wisconsin by allowing school districts to get their employee benefits costs under control.
By limiting collective bargaining to wages for public employees in Wisconsin, most school districts are also able to set their hours and develop teacher evaluation programs, two very contentious issues in Chicago. I'm sure Emanuel is looking at envy across the Wisconsin border where this strike would likely have been resolved by now.
It's not surprising that in a survey by the Wheeler Report of State Senate Democrats in Wisconsin, not one Democrat listed undoing collective bargaining reforms as a priority.
It is also unsurprising that a major school district in Wisconsin that has not been able to take advantage of collective bargaining reforms is Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), the home of MTEA's Peterson. The district foolishly signed a long-term collective bargaining agreement with the union preventing the district from achieving savings in benefits that would have prevented teacher layoffs.
Like Chicago, the union also prevented MPS from receiving a $10 million grant from the federal government to experiment with performance-based incentives. Chicago Public Schools lost even more, $35 million.
Perhaps it's not coincidental that MPS and Chicago Public Schools are showing approximately the same graduation rates.
What is needed in Chicago and Milwaukee is a little less "solidarity" from the likes of Bob Peterson, and a little more control by elected officials. It will come in Milwaukee when the current contract expires.
Chicago schools are in need of real fiscal and academic reform. Regardless of what happens in Thursday night's football game, this is one area where Wisconsin is winning.