With remarkably poor timing, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) teachers went on strike again today, roughly one week after Chicago’s public school students had returned to school and nearly three weeks after many private and suburban public schools had already begun. As a result, an estimated 350,000 public school students who already had one of the shortest school days and the shortest school years in the country will be short-changed again.
Led by the feisty Karen Lewis, the 25,000-member strong Chicago Teachers Union claims it’s all about the students, but of course it’s not – it’s about the teachers and their union. If it were about the students, more than Chicago’s current fifteen percent of fourth graders would be proficient in reading and more than 56 percent of entering freshman would ultimately graduate from high school. (Thanks to National Review Online’s John Fund for the proficiency and graduation figures.)
As prelude to their strike, CTU members rejected a twelve percent salary increase over the next four years; instead they want 30 percent. The CTU also objects to proposals regarding standardized tests and teacher assessment, merit pay, and a longer school day (for which Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposes to hire back an additional 500 or so teachers anyway). Perhaps this would be understandable in a full-employment economy, but in a nation with an official unemployment rate of 8.1%, a “U-6” underemployment rate of roughly 15%, a record one out of seven Americans on the equivalent of food stamps, and a national labor force participation rate at a thirty-year low of 63.5% it is incomprehensible.
It’s not as if Chicago teachers aren’t already well-paid. According to the Heritage Foundation, the average teacher in Chicago Public Schools makes $71,000 per year before benefits are included; Fund and the Chicago Public Schools themselves put the average at $76,000. And those extra benefits are substantial: a nine-month work year with liberal paid vacation days, generous health care, “bankable” sick days that can be accumulated and cashed in at retirement, and a generous retirement package that is beyond sustainability.
The CTU retirement package, which according to the Chicago Tribune currently accounts for more than half of the state’s unfunded pension liabilities , pays a benefit equal to seventy-five percent of the teacher’s average salary in the four highest consecutive years in the last ten years of teaching. Exact figures are hard to come by, but in 2010 The Illinois Policy Institute estimated the average Chicago Public School teacher’s retirement benefits at roughly $65,000 annually. That’s over four times a typical Social Security recipient’s roughly $15,000 per year.
In exchange, teachers complain that they pay 9.4 percent of their salaries into their pension fund, but the rest of the civilian workforce annually making $110,100 or less effectively pays 12.4% into Social Security system (10.4% for 2012) plus another 2.9% (with no limit) for Medicare. (Economists generally agree that “the employers’ share” of Social Security and Medicare would otherwise be available to the employee in the form of wages.) So Chicago teachers get a whole lot more pension benefit for a whole lot less.
One reason the number is so high is that, according to a poorly kept secret, teachers anticipating retirement are often promoted into higher-paying positions in their last few years in order to pad the base salary on which their pension will ultimately be based. Another is that the Illinois Pension Code provides an automatic annual increase of 3% for Chicago Teacher Pension Fund service retirement – and survivor benefits payable to a member’s eligible spouse and/or children. And a third is that, unlike the rest of us, retired teachers – and other retired state of Illinois employees – don’t pay Illinois state income tax, currently 5%, on their retirement earnings.
It’s no wonder that, according to the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund’s own website, taxpayers currently fund the retirement of 23,000 former teachers, roughly 92% as many as the number of active teachers. And it’s also no wonder – again according to John Fund – that out of every new dollar in the past five years earmarked for public education, fully 71 cents has gone toward teacher retirement costs. In short, it pays to be a retired teacher, but first you have to be a well-paid teacher.
For all its grandeur, the City of Chicago faces very serious problems – financial, cultural, and educational – that substantially threaten the future of our city, our state, and our country. Adult illiteracy ranks high among them, and an unjustified Chicago Teachers Union strike won’t help solve that. Instead of sound economics or even some kind of rough income justice, the closed-shop Chicago Teacher’s Union strike represents the triumph of a coddled brute-force labor union mentality over compassion for kids or the wise expenditure of taxpayer dollars. It’s time to start thinking about new solutions for the problem of public education.