‘Give Chicago teachers the facts’

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Peter Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post, a Chicago-based non-profit communications organization. Previously he worked in the U.S. Department of Education.

Peter Cunningham is executive director of Education Post, a Chicago-based non-profit communications organization promoting education reform.

A democratic organization is supposed to be governed by and for its members, yet a bargaining committee of the Chicago Teachers Union flatly rejected a proposed contract offer from the Chicago Public Schools without consulting their teachers. They didn’t even publicly share the details with their members until after the bargaining committee turned it down.

Still there is confusion. For example, Ray Salazar, a well-known local teacher blogger, said on twitter that he had to piece together the facts based on tweets and press announcements rather than a comprehensive fact sheet.

Many teachers are still in the dark about a deal that offers them net salary hikes, guarantees no economic teacher layoffs for the next four years, and limits charter school growth. The proposal fully funds this year’s required pension contribution of nearly $700 million and includes several other union requests: self-directed professional development, less testing, and fewer observations in the teacher evaluation system.

Finally, it offers an early retirement package that include $1,500 cash for every year of service — which adds up to a $45,000 retirement bonus for a 30-year veteran, over and above their pensions. The deal hinges on 2,250 teachers and paraprofessionals — maybe half those who are eligible — opting for early retirement. If the number falls short, CPS can reopen the contract though CPS expects more than enough will take it.

Nevertheless, the union bargaining committee turned it down, prompting CPS CEO Forrest Claypool to announce layoffs and cuts, beginning this month. The actual number of pink slips for teachers will be pretty low, but hundreds of school-based employees could be let go.

Claypool also canceled the long-standing practice of paying most of the employee’s share of their pensions. Under the so-called “pension pick-up” agreement, dating to the early 1980’s, CPS pays 7 percent of the 9 percent employee contribution.

Claypool can unilaterally eliminate the pension pick-up but instead proposed a two-year phase-out starting next year that would be paired with salary hikes in order to keep teachers approximately whole or slightly ahead. Without the new contract, Claypool’s only option is to eliminate the pension pickup all at once, which will automatically lower teacher paychecks as early as mid-march.

CTU’s response to the escalating crisis was to send out an angry letter to members explaining why they rejected the deal. The letter doesn’t explain that teachers are getting “cost-of-living” raises of more than 9 percent over four years and another 5 percent to 6 percent overall in “step and lane” raises — given for years of service and credentials. Even with health care and pension give-backs, teachers net out with about a 5-percent raise over four years.

Instead, the letter starts out by saying that the union doesn’t “trust” the board to fulfill its promises. Notably, it mentions the board’s decision to rescind a 2011 salary hike — a five-year-old decision made by a different board and CEO.

The union letter also complains that through natural attrition and retirements, staffing levels could be reduced causing a “massive spike in class sizes.” Hyperbole aside, this is kind of like complaining that if a rainstorm comes we might get wet.

The whole point of the contract is to give management the flexibility to adjust staffing levels, especially in low-enrollment schools with unsustainably small class sizes and bloated administrative offices, in order to lower costs. The notion that CPS simply wants “massive” class sizes is silly.

The whole point of the early retirement incentive, which is voluntary of course, is to replace higher-paid employees near the end of their careers with newer, less expensive employees and to use those savings to fund higher salaries for the rest of the teachers. No one is required to take it. That’s why it’s called an “offer.”

Moreover, CTU President Karen Lewis specifically asked for the early retirement package because many of her older members have hit the top of the pay scale and won’t qualify for step and lane raises.

The CTU letter closes with a renewed call for a “walk-in” on February 17 — yet another display of union muscle at a time when calm heads and some sense of shared responsibility is needed. A follow-up page includes a summary of the terms, but even this is confusing and misleading.

In a democratic organization, the people most affected should have the last word. In this case, that’s the teachers and they deserve to know the facts.

Peter Cunningham is executive director of Education Post, a Chicago-based non-profit communications organization promoting education reform.

This op-ed was edited to reflect corrected data supplied by the author following publication.

  • dzipio

    So, in your world 25,000 members should be consulted on every single offer? And I am guessing you did not get an OK from Salazar before splashing his name in your op-ed. Kindly leave union business to the union.

    • Peter Cunningham

      Actually I did get Ray’s approval to use his tweet. Ask him if you like. And no I don’t think 25,000 teachers should be consulted but I do think they should be informed — and they weren’t. Two teachers actually wrote to me after I published a piece in the Sun-Times asking me for the facts. Why not just be super-transparent? What’s the harm? Put it out there, give folks a week to think about it, have union reps informally gather some feedback and bring it back to the committee. Instead, 40 people shut the door, make a decision, announce it without any details. Look I’m just one person’s opinion. The union’s business is the union’s business but this is free country and all I did was offer an opinion. You’re free to disagree.

      • Kirstiecat

        It was absolutely put out there. Might I suggest that these teachers were so overloaded with job responsibilities that they may not have even attended the union meetings after school that sought to inform teachers in a spirit of justice and transparency district wide? This is not the fault of the union, who actively sought to educate every teacher. In some ways, it is the fault of those minority of teachers but, in the larger sense, it is more directly the fault of the district that makes the average job responsibilities of the Chicago Public School teacher alone next to impossible, especially if she/he has a family of her/his own.

        Still, most teachers are informed and continue to fight for justice, unlike yourself with this very demeaning anti-union and anti-public school teacher article.

      • xian

        This was pretty weaksauce. Your only in-context quote in the entire article is yourself in the headline. Who does that? The two teachers who wrote to you (out of 25,000) may merely been confused by your selective spinning of the facts.

        It’s worth noting that the vast majority of the bargaining team is elected by members. Members who vote based on records, with very little money on either side of the race.

        How many of the people on the other side of the table are elected in such a fashion?

        These 40 people then do a pretty good job talking to their members that they represent. Again, how does that compare to most elected officials.

        This is more democratic than our school district, your organization, and our entire country’s political system.

        It’s also quite rich when to talk about transparency, when on the other side of the table, is what’s generally considered to be the least transparent administration in many generations. So opaque that they literally concealed the murder of one of our students.

        You’ve got a plank in your eye that might be causing your fixation on a perceived splinter in the union’s.

  • Marrs96

    What is more problematic with this slanted opinion piece is that the author claims to lead a non-profit that does not seem to exist as one according to the Illinois Secretary of State non-profit filing database and the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Select Check databases. I know being the former mouthpiece of CPS likely made someone fairly lax about facts, but claiming this type of status formally isn’t of the simple white lie variety…

    • Peter Cunningham

      It’s incorporated in Delaware, not Illinois.

      • Marrs96

        990?

        • Peter Cunningham

          Not filed yet. We’re too new. If you have a question you can email me. I am happy to answer it. pcunningham@educationpost.org

          • Marrs96

            Since you’re replying here, who are your funders (admittedly you supposedly incorporated in 2012 so I’m shocked that there is no 990 anyplace on file…)

          • Peter Cunningham

            My funders include the Bloomberg Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and an anonymous donor (not the Gates Foundation.) I announced on the day we went public in September 2014. You can find them on our website. We incorporated in 2014.

          • Kirstiecat

            All of these organizations are pro-charter. It’s obvious who you are aligned with. Perhaps, you should present your opinion honestly instead of trying to disguise it as if you are for non-profit education. Despicable.

      • Marrs96

        Still not seeing it in the Delaware Corporate Search database either…

  • Daniel van Over

    Many have accused Peter Cunningham of duplicity and deliberate deception during the years he worked as Arne Duncan’s boy, first at CPS, and then fed ED. In this ridiculous piece, he pays credence to such accusations.

    First of all, there was no tentative agreement (TA) reached to submit to the membership of the CTU. Period. The Big Bargaining Team–union members who are currently working in the schools in a broad range of positions–is an extension of the table negotiating team. Until the entire group says there’s a TA, ongoing negotiations are just that.

    Peter’s characterization of the proposal made by his erstwhile employer is full of errors and half-truths. “Net salary hikes of more than 9% over four years?” Not quite, Pete. First of all, they’re LESS than 9%, and further, with the loss of the pension pickup, preferential pension treatment, and increased health care premiums, it’s a complete wash. After cuts for the next two years, my take-home pay in June 2019 would be pretty much what it was in June 2015.
    “Guarantees no economic teacher layoffs for the next four years?” Okay, I know it’s called the Chicago Teachers Union, but we have many members who are not teachers, and they weren’t offered the same protections. We don’t sell out our colleagues.
    “Limits charter school growth.” Does not and cannot limit the ability of the state charter commission to approve new charter schools.
    “The proposal fully funds this year’s required pension contribution of nearly $700 million?” Actually, that’s state law. Not making the payment is tantamount to breaking the law.
    Peter Cunningham has never been a friend to Chicago’s teachers, clinicians, and PSRPs. He shouldn’t feign so now.

    • Peter Cunningham

      Maybe I did the math wrong but when you compound the COLA raises, I got over 9%. Step & Lane adds another 5-6%.
      I understand the committee voted against it. My argument is that teachers should at least know the facts. I’m not arguing with the committee’s authority. I’m arguing against secrecy.
      How many charter schools has the state opened in Chicago? I think the answer is zero but I might be wrong and they would not open them over the objections of Emanuel & Claypool.
      I think the commitment was no budget-based teacher layoffs. Fair enough but it’s not realistic to promise no layoffs ever for anyone.
      On pensions, yes it is state law. I’m just trying to make the point that the deal protects them in the context of a conversation about bankruptcy.
      Finally, I have never been accused duplicity or deliberate deception by education reporters who have relied on me for information. Some people who disagree with me say that about me. You can decide for yourself.

      In any case, thanks for the comments.

      • Daniel van Over

        Peter writes “How many charter schools has the state opened in Chicago? I think the answer is zero but I might be wrong and they would not open them over the objections of Emanuel & Claypool.”
        The answer is two (although I can’t find a citation), but there hasn’t been much need for charter operators to go to the state commission: CPS has opened over 130 charters in just over a decade. But if they’re serious about a limit, then operators will have no choice but to go to the state.
        The state has a $40+ million grant to open new charters, which is to be split between Chicago and the rest of the state. With that kind of money, additional charters will open in Chicago, the objections of Emanuel & Clayfool be hanged. (And if you’re really naïve enough to believe that the Mayor is opposed to seeing more charters in the city…)

      • Kirstiecat

        Every single configuration considering lanes and steps, COLA, and health insurance increases as well as pension de-funding showed a decrease in salary over 4 years. If it was simply that and not glaring issues in terms of minimum staffing requirements and a quality public education, you would have a semblance of a point. Perhaps, you need to actually read over the last contract offer yourself. Can you honestly say you would agree to, as a former teacher, a pay cut that may ultimately increase your class size and cut any supports if you had students who desperately needed IEP services in your classroom? Again, stop fighting against a quality public education. It’s obvious what your agenda is here by who your funders are.

  • Concerned Parent

    Be careful of this person. What’s does he want really? What is his game?

    • Peter Cunningham

      No game. Just want to see the parties reach agreement, avoid a strike and focus on Springfield.

      • Kirstiecat

        You do have an aim and it is detrimental to the future of Chicago kids-what you might consider a waste and what I consider worthy of a positive future- and it is shameful. I will always remember your name, Peter Cunningham.

  • Victor Ochoa

    This ant-union piece reminds me of another article. Failed former Arne Duncan lapdog, Peter Cunningham once wrote the following of an author, “resorting to tactics that are beneath someone of .. stature: ………..cherry-picking data, setting up straw man arguments, taking language out of context and distorting its meaning, and ignoring sound evidence that conflicts with ..point of view”. The shoe certainly fits you Pete.
    It is clear the author is a professional agitator hoping someone like Rauner hires him to spin the truth.
    Some facts now.
    The CPS contract proposal would have most teachers making less money in four years than they currently earn. The teachers in years one through eight might earn more if CPS didn’t use furloughs to shorten the year. Yes, they had language in it that would allow this.
    The proposal was full of loopholes that would allow CPS to mistreat our students. They deserve better.

    • Peter Cunningham

      You sure they would have been making less? Over 9% COLA when compounded over four years and 5-6% step and lane — with 7% giveback on pensions and 1.5% giveback on health care. Still seems like teachers come out ahead — not by much I admit — but nevertheless ahead. But if that was the issue why didn’t they say that. Instead they say “trust” — which I understand but how do we bargain trust? That’s why we have a contract — because we don’t trust each other. Hopefully they can iron out the differences before the end of the month when layoffs start.

      • Victor Ochoa

        Fact checking is a great safeguard.
        Yes, I am sure. A quick glance at our teacher salary charts would inform you that the steps and lanes are limited. We only have 6 lanes and the first 13 steps mostly correspond to the first 13 years of your career and the final few have approximately 5 year gaps with less pay. Your COLA numbers are way off too. The offer had only 1% in the final year. There is no shared sacrifice in the offer, only us sacrificing again.

        • Peter Cunningham

          Actually 2% in the fourth year, 1% in the 3rd year, 3% in the 2nd year and 2.75% in the first year.

  • Kirstiecat

    I’m a member of the Big Bargaining Team and your post is extremely erroneous. I represent clinicians and not only has Chicago Public Schools shown a nearly complete disregard for us contract wise and work conditions wise but Chicago has been losing clinicians to suburban school districts now in significant numbers because they won’t hire appropriately and the strain is too great. That means talent is lost to a city and children with special needs suffer as a result. As a member of the Big Bargaining Team, I am just one of 40 who all came in on holidays, weeknights, and weekends as well as over the summer on our own time without pay on several occasions. We started asking the people we represent (in my case, clinicians) what their most important issues were at the end of last school year at the latest. Since then, we have kept members up to date most of the time within the school setting after work hours. You don’t have nearly 90% of CTU staff voting for a strike without some serious changes needed. Additionally, the House of Delegates are all updated and report back to their schools about the contract. When the most recent contract proposals were reviewed, it was clear by bargaining members, delegates, and those teachers we all proudly represent that this was not a fair contract proposal. In the future, it might be best if you get your facts straight before you suggest false information to the public. It lessens your credibility and is a detriment to true education reformers who care about all students and a quality public education.

    • Peter Cunningham

      If I said anything false please correct it. My argument was that teachers should have an opportunity to know what is in the deal that’s being rejected. I’m not questioning your authority or your commitment. I know it’s a lot of hard work. It’s just that we are in a crisis and I worry that the alternative will be worse for everyone — kids, teachers and taxpayers.

      • Kirstiecat

        I did correct you. I stated that every time there is a contract offer, not only does the Bargaining Team strongly consider it but it is taken to those we represent at our schools (all our members) and has been now since the beginning of negotiations over a year ago. The Union is very clear with it’s members about contract offers and has been consistently. Each one of us takes our position very seriously.

        For someone truly concerned about tax dollars and education reform, I find it funny you choose to make allegations and attack teachers when you could be focusing primarily on how your tax dollars are being misspent under TIF surpluses for high end condos in Uptown or how your tax dollars went to closing 50 schools and making students cross gang lines to the tune of 3x the cost that Rahm quoted the public for closing them. You could be outraged by the SUPES scandal and the Aramark contract bids. You could be focusing on toxic bank swamps and the fact that CPS is paying more than one CEOs at the moment. You could explain how the charters have thousands of empty seats but get more tax dollars than what is spent on CPS teacher pensions even though any gains they show with way more $$$ than public schools is minimal at best.

        That you instead chose to pick a fight about unified laborers that fight for justice and equality every day is very telling. Forgive me if I don’t exactly consider you an “education reformer.” It’s pretty obvious you’re just a cog in one extremely destrucrive machine.

        • Peter Cunningham

          In no way is this an attack on teachers. My intent was merely to encourage the union to share the details with the teachers and invite a larger debate. These are challenging times for everyone and if we come together around an agreement I think we might be able to avoid layoffs and move Springfield. If we don’t, layoffs are inevitable help from Springfield is less likely.

          • Concerned Parent

            Details were shared with teachers at our school and so well that parents were also informed. Know what you are writing about first before you act as if it is factual. When you share with your funders that you wrote this piece, will you include the corections and comments here?

          • Kirstiecat

            This piece is a misdirected opinion article that does, in fact, come off as anti-union and anit-teacher for the record as well as misplaced in terms of “educational reform” vs status quo educational policies. On a personal note, it’s quite ignorant, misinformative, and even shameful. It has a personal agenda slant that does not yield itself to positive change but the opposite. It’s offensive to people who work hard to make this city great and it shows a disconnect or, to put it bluntly, that you would not realize anything about the true issues at stake here or what it means to actually fight for justice for every child to have a quality public education every day regardless of ability level. I am immensely disappointed in both you and Catalyst.

  • CBW

    Hey Walton Family, come get your boy.

    • Kirstiecat

      They already have him! He’s feeling free to post anti-union and anti-public education teacher garbage on Catalyst! This is exactly what they want. I mean, why have a conscience and actually care about the future?

  • Sojourner

    Who is this guy? The CBOE cannot promise to “limit charter school growth.” The ultimate authority to approve charter school applications has been given to The Illinois State Charter School Commission which can override decisions made by the CBOE. Ergo, any contractual “promise” to limit charter expansion is unenforceable. Why would any CTU member find this proposed article something to rejoice about?