Nothing says “Welcome back to school” to Chicago students, parents, and teachers quite like the threatening atmosphere that accompanies current contract negotiations between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union.
In early August, CEO Forrest Claypool discussed the continued conflict between CPS and the CTU with the Chicago Tribune editorial board. In the discussion, he stated that CTU must concede to a district-wide teacher pay cut, or classrooms will feel the effect of cuts to resources and teachers—cuts that will exacerbate conditions in the already overcrowded and ill-equipped classrooms in which we teachers currently operate.
By publicly threatening cuts to the classroom, Claypool is not inviting a compromise but inciting a surrender-or-strike choice. It is not as solutions-oriented a choice as one that an educator might propose. An ultimatum like Claypool’s reveals a misunderstanding of how to run an effective, high-poverty school district. It is a CEO’s way of dealing with numbers, not an educator’s way of dealing with professionals who teach Chicago’s youth, 86 percent of whom come from low-income families.
Claypool furthered his justification for a pay cut or classroom cut by stating, “We have been as generous as we can possibly be with the teachers” and “That leaves only the teachers’ union as the obstacle to, you know, protecting our classrooms.” These statements put a spotlight on the disconnect between district leaders and our city’s 20,000 public school educators.
Last school year, Claypool’s first year as CEO, teachers taught despite a pay freeze and no contract. Cost-of-living raises and raises for experience were taken away without much notice, and educators who were planning on those raises lost out. Based on the salary increases from our last contract, most teachers were set to see a raise of $2,000 to $3,000.
It is important to note that these amounts are extremely similar to those in teacher contracts in suburban districts, where pay freezes did not occur. Claypool and the Board of Education also imposed three furlough days on CPS employees, which amounted to a 1.7% pay cut. On top of this, CPS educators, who are required to live in Chicago by an outdated, mandatory residency policy that teachers in few other districts in America have to abide by, saw a 13% property tax increase.
When Claypool says he and the board have been generous with teachers and that our teachers’ union is the only obstacle to protecting our classrooms, he needs to come and talk to teachers who teach at-risk students in ill-resourced classrooms. He needs to hear our stories of bringing students who are four grade levels behind up to par with their wealthier peers, as standardized test results show we have done. He needs to hear how we deal with tragedies and how we cope in our classrooms after losing a student to poverty and violence, as I have three different times in my 13-year career. Perhaps then he will understand the meaning of generosity, a character trait Chicago teachers embody on a daily basis.
A better way to start the school year would be to publicly propose solutions and to praise the financial and deeply personal sacrifices Chicago teachers make each year. I would support a district leader who starts the school year with a compromise in mind that takes into account the proposal backed by aldermen to use TIF surplus funds to fund our schools. Instead, the norm of blaming teachers for a poorly run district is being repeated, just by a different figure-head.
A strike is a very real possibility, and this rhetoric will be used to fuel the CTU’s fire, much as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s rhetoric was used four years ago during the union’s successful contract negotiations.
Chicago teachers, even ambivalent union members like me, are finding those champions in the CTU, not in our district leaders. I would love to work in a district where my leaders speak highly of teachers and our efforts. Instead, CPS is a district where teachers have to fight for fair compensation, the same type of compensation our colleagues in other nearby districts are receiving without a fight. Chicago needs leaders who view teachers as allies instead of enemies, who can champion our successes and back our successes up with fair compensation. This is the first step in creating a sustainable teaching force for the students of Chicago.
Gina Caneva is a 13-year veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum.