Chicago Strike Showed the Real Value of our Teachers

Jon Isaacs

Here’s what we should have learned from the Chicago Teachers Strike –

We depend on our teachers for our civilized society to function. Period. And we should all thank the Chicago teachers for the stark reminder.

Public school teachers don’t just teach our kids. They make it possible for parents to go to work. They keep the crime rate down. They give kids a place to go and be productive. They help instill character, responsibility and empathy in our young people. They keep young kids safe. Public school teachers bring order to society. What is that worth to you and me?

After just one week off the job, Chicago was openly worrying that their city would explode in a crime wave. Parents, who depend on schools to take care of their kids so they can go to work, were worrying about losing their jobs or how to get emergency child care. Hundreds of thousands of kids were looking for somewhere safe to go.

Despite Mayor Rahm’s attempts to blame all of this on the teachers by calling their strike a “threat to public health and safety” it was pretty clear that parents were unified with the teachers. He was right about one thing – when our teachers aren’t on the job society begins to fall apart.

During the strike, right wingers and their mouthpieces in the press repeated the talking point that “Chicago teachers are some of the highest paid in the country” to make them look greedy. What do some of the highest paid teachers make? $76,000 a year. That amount is shocking to me – shocking in just how damn low it is. Is $76,000 a year the market value between order and chaos?

We have been subjected to years of propaganda from the right wing that has aggressively painted public school teachers as greedy, lazy, careless and incompetent. It is everywhere – the mainstream and rightwing press, in TV ads, in political speechifying. There is a large network of well-funded “think tanks” in this country whose entire purpose is to destroy public education - and the reality is they can’t do that without breaking the bond all of us have with our school teachers. That’s why they’ve put teachers in the crosshairs. Besides our family, teachers and schools are the biggest constant in our lives when we’re growing up.

Every one of us who has grown up to lead half way productive lives owe that to at least two things – strong parents and/or great teachers. And in many cases, it is our public school teachers who have helped steer kids on the right path when their family has been unable to do it.

My wife is a child and family therapist who works mostly with foster kids whose parents are drug addicts, abusive or both. The kids she works with, as early as five years old, already show signs of falling behind and/or anti-social behavior. I have become convinced that the biggest problem in our country – the root of just about all of our social problems - is the failure of parents to live up to their responsibilities to their kids. And the failure of our country to support parents. Teachers are the back stops - the last line of defense for these kids.

Without teachers, we would spend far more on prisons, public assistance, drug & alcohol treatment and health care than we do today. Instead of lamenting how much we spend on teachers, we should thank them for saving all of us money in the long run.

Here in Portland, we have a thriving public school system that is deeply rooted in our community and crosses socio-economic and ethnic lines. We send over 80% of our kids to public schools. With that many kids attending our public schools, just stop and think about the faith, responsibility and value we place in our teachers.

Ask yourself, what are they worth to our city, which aspires to be great? I say they are priceless.

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    Thanks for providing the perspective the Chicago teacher strike needed.

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      ..the difference between NCLB and RTTT is a slight one: There is money for innovation and to help struggling school districts in RTTT. NCLB only took money away.

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      Sadly, Kari, the classroom averages are more likely to be about 30+ kids in most Oregon schools these days.

      25 is a good number and workable, but 30+?

      In any case, thanks for the kind words.

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      Kari, I don't know about Chicago, but according to the new PSU study, Oregon public employee total compensation is roughly double their cash salaries. If that's true in Chicago, then your $17.90 figure quickly jumps to $35.80.

      Of course, I'm sure your child's education is worth more than that, which works out to about $6,086 per school year. But, then look at the total per pupil budget of Portland Public Schools and, depending on how you define the number of pupils, its total budget per student is closer to $13,000 each per year.

      Now, your child's education may be worth more than $13,000 per year to you, but you aren't paying most of the bill; your neighbors are through property taxes and state and federal income taxes.

      You may not be able to put a price on the value of a good teacher for you and your child, but you likely put a price on the value of good food for you and your child, good shelter, good clothing.

      Is it only in the public sector, where others pay the bulk of the cost, that you are at a loss to determine the monetary value of an important service?

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          I don't pretend that education only benefits parents and children.

          The fact that it also benefits all of us doesn't negate the fact that we pay too much for what we get when the state virtually monopolizes K-12 educational delivery.

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            I'm curious, Steve. Are you more bothered by the price or the monopoly? Which would be worse: a) If private schools in the area charged $13,000 per student, but were pretty free to open. b) If public schools charged $6,000 per student, but private schools were strongly restricted.

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              I'm more bothered by the monopoly, although I'm sure that many people with kids in school are very concerned about the price.

              I don't think your a) and b) choices are truly opposite sides of the issue so I'll pass on answering.

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        However, the price of a good public education for everyone's children is a public good, not a personal good. Children grow up to be contributing members of society (hopefully) and it is in the best interest of every member of society to ensure that every child is well-educated as a result, rather than only an elite few whose parents can afford it.

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          I don't have to disagree with anything you say here, Joyce, to make a case that the way we deliver public education today does not ensure that every child is well-educated.

          Monopolies almost always cost too much and deliver too little compared to more competitive models.

          If we had unlimited dollars then we wouldn't worry about over spending on education. But we don't. If we could deliver better education at a lower cost that would leave more money for other goods and services people value.

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            This logic fails to address why the state's public institutions of higher learning, which certainly do not have a monopoly on education, have seen tuition costs skyrocket. Less public investment in higher education has led to a far more expensive education; almost as expensive as the private schools. I still haven't seen any evidence of the private sector bringing down cost when it gets an opportunity to commercialize what should be a public good, education included.

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              Mike, you ask a good question about the rising cost of public higher ed institutions. I don't have a fully satisfactory answer, but here's an interesting take from an article, "Why Do Colleges Compete by Becoming More Expensive?"

              "How do the colleges compete? By spending more on such things as luxury dorms, elaborate sports facilities, and increasing their recruiting staffs (and sending them around the world in search for full-pay foreign students). And, above all, by discounting tuition with financial aid they cannot afford to give. The net result is that the colleges’ expenses go up, their revenues go down, and tuitions are driven even higher.

              "Here, then, is the paradox: students are paying higher tuitions because the colleges are competing so hard to attract them. Competition between soap manufacturers or auto makers for consumer dollars can drive down price, but competition between colleges for students drives price up. For colleges, the tragedy of the commons is at work."

              The full article is at

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                I think a big part of that question has to do with evaluating quality. There are no widely accepted ways of evaluating teacher output, in the absence of such people look at fluff and indulge in wishful thinking. Not ideal conditions for a market.

                That's a knock on union backers as much as libertarians, teachers shouldn't expect to be paid what they're worth if they don't let people determine what they're worth.

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                This is rapidly heading off-topic, but colleges don't just compete by running up expenses. Sometimes they compete by just raising the price.

                In the world of higher ed admissions & marketing, this is known as "the Swarthmore effect". In the 1990s, Swarthmore dramatically raised its tuition price - not to pay for new stuff, but just to raise it - and it paid off by suddenly seeming to be higher-quality.

                It's like the difference between a GMC Suburban and a Cadillac Escalade - there isn't any, except a little leather trim. Just the price and the brand name.

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            And your Libertarian so-called solution is any better?

            One reason public education is in the straits it is today is because the market is significantly attempting to profitize it. I seriously double that privatized education will be any cheaper than public education is now...and if it is, it will be significantly worse for all but the elites.

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        Actually, Steve, speaking as a former employee of the Chicago Public Schools, the average salary quoted in the article for Chicago teachers includes the total compensation- salary, insurance, pension, etc. Everything. That average also includes administrators salaries. So Chicago teachers' salaries are not nearly as high as you think. Further, Chicago Public School teachers are required to live in Chicago, where the property values in decent neighborhoods are higher than they are in neighboring suburbs as well. I don't understand how people can complain about the lack of quality teachers when they aren't willing to pay them what they're worth. You get what you pay for.

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          Catherine, you may be correct, but according the Chicago CBS story below, the $76,000 figure for salary only WITHOUT benefits comes from a Chicago school system spokesman. If it included benefits that would imply that cash salaries were more on the order of $40,000, which is below PPS salaries - hard to believe.


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      well, 25 is a dream number that no one at the HS level has seen in years. I have 49 in one section of Spanish 2, 45 in Spanish 1.

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      Not to quibble, but for many teachers in many districts, 25 kids/class is a dim memory from the good old days. Here in Portland, we have kindergarten classes of 32+ and high school classes of 40-60. High school teachers teach upwards of 180 students/week. I don't even want to calculate that per student expenditure.

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    So, Steve, on a relative basis, how much am I paying in defense costs that go to other states, mostly the Red ones who get more federal money than the pay in federal taxes. I don't have kids in school anymor but I appreciate the "village" that supported their education. Now they all are productive individuals paying those taxes.

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      Richard, I've seen varying calculations about who subsidizes whom when it comes to defense spending. As a libertarian I would prefer much less such spending overall, but the Rs and Ds have me outvoted on that one.

      As to the "village" that supported your children's education, I would argue that no matter how noble the sentiment, in reality when someone else pays the bill, that bill ends up much higher than it would be if you were spending your own money for the same results.

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          Dan, comparing the average public school cost to the "best known private schools" is really apples and oranges.

          For every well-known high priced private middle school there are a number of lesser known, lower priced private schools. Private middle schools in this area can be found charging in the range of $6,000. Again, the average Oregon public school, K-12 is over $11,300 according to the NEA.

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        Steve--keep in mind that these same children you don't want to pay taxes to educate will grow up to be your doctors, your police officers, your government officials, your caretakers, etc....

        I don't know about you libertarians, but I prefer to have the next generation that's going to be providing services to me in my old age to be well-educated, thank you very much. And I do want decent roads and public services provided by educated people.

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          Of course we want "decent roads and public services provided by educated people." But if we overpay for that education, that leaves less money to provide the roads and other services.

          Education may be very, very important, but that doesn't mean that we can spend without restraint on it and expect no negative consequences.

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            No one is suggesting spending without restraint. However, better educated people also tend to get higher paying jobs, and would pay more taxes in the future. So education spending is quite literally an investment in the future.

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              Your assumption that education spending is an investment in the future only holds true if more education spending equates to better educational outcomes - a dicey assumption at best.

              Just one study that questions your assumption is here:

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      Please cite your sources re defense spending. Boeing has significant presence in CA and WA, both 'blue' states. Also military reservations are prevalent in both states.

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    (1) I could support higher compensation for new teachers in order to upgrade the quality of teaching (and agree with the comments on the importance of teaching). I read an article that said that teachers reach their peak productivity after six to eight years of experiences. So I’d prefer a rather flat compensation schedule. I dislike the many (maybe 12) annual steps in the Portland Public Schools salary schedule. The PPS Board should not have agreed to add an additional step at the top in last year’s contract. It did not make educational productivity sense and in many case it went to PERS Tier 1 teachers making the PERS funding situation worse.

    (2) I do advocate many more foreign language immersion programs (like what Utah is doing) so, over time, I’d like to see a turnover in teachers from monolingual English teachers (what we largely have now) to bilingual teachers able to teach well in two languages (what we need for our future). I am willing pay more for that.

    (3) Just for annual, per student cost comparisons, the study abroad organization ASSE (here) offers high school years abroad (usually covering tuition, room and board with a family, and international airfare) for the following current fees: to Mexico for $4,425, to French Canada for $5,508, to China for $7,620, to Germany, Switzerland, Taiwan, Italy and fourteen other countries for $7,665, and to Spain, France, Great Britain, and Denmark for $7,881. We could save a little bit of money by having a few students spend a high school year abroad.

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    Steve, privately funded schools cost considerably more per pupil than public schools. So your libertarian view fails here. However lets say costs were the same, how do you accomodate those who cannot pay the cost?

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      Richard, after running a private scholarship program for low-income kids in the tri-county area since 1999, I can tell you that there are many private schools that cost much less than taxpayers pay for the average public school in and around Portland.

      How do I accommodate those who cannot pay the cost? If you don't hold me to fully supporting the way our food stamp program works now, I suggest it could be a model for education spending.

      We don't build government food stores for those who cannot afford food. We give them the Oregon Trail card and they shop in the same grocery stores the rest of us use. They aren't relegated to shopping only at the nearest supermarket to their home; just like the rest of us they have a wide variety of choices, both in the stores they can frequent and in the food items they can purchase.

      If low income people are dissatisfied with the educational results in their local public school they have few options. If they are dissatisfied with anything in their local grocery store, all they have to do is shop somewhere else. No complaining to the store manager; no going to the Board meeting of whichever big corporation owns the grocery store; just shop somewhere else like the rest of us can do.

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      In the "real world" public schools are known to label some kids special need, ESL, etc. in order to get the additional dollars that accompany those labels.

      Even if that were not true, why not consider sending those additional funds with truly needy children to the schools of their family's choice, instead of telling them that only the nearest public school can meet their child's needs?

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        And how are they getting there?

        I went to a public school for one reason: It was closest. And I came from a comfortably upper-lower class family. Asking my parents to drive me out to a private school before their work would just shuffle more cost onto them. And getting back? I wouldn't have had my neighbor keeping an eye on me after school.

        Of course, there are babysitters and after-school programs. More money from my parents. But hey, maybe all that money they would be saving from a private school (hey, competition means you can charge more for better schools right? What does that say about these bargain-rate middle schools you keep touting?) would be enough to pay for the extra transportation and after-care. Maybe.

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          Jason, transportation is a problem for many parents and schools, public and private. As any realtor will tell you, people who can afford to buy a home near what they consider a "good" school will do so.

          It's low-income families that are most often stuck living in lower cost housing far from what they consider "good" schools. Letting such parents use part of the funds taxpayers allocate for their kids' education on transportation could help a lot.

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        Clearly you have no understanding of the current state of special education. Let's put it this the "real world" right now, the state determines what percentage of a school district's population should be identified as special education students, and pays for only that amount. Right now that percentage is set at 11%. I know of districts with 17% of their population identified as special education. The district does not get outside funding for that 6% over the 11%. Many districts in the state are looking at ways to reduce their special education numbers for that very reason, despite very real special education needs.

        Clearly you've not done recent research in the field. Sped has not been a financial cash cow for districts for many years.

        And Steve, it's not the public system that restricts access to private schools for students with disabilities. The last time I checked (about four years ago), the Archdiocese of Portland explicitly does not include students with disabilities in their anti-discrimination statements. Private schools can and do exclude students with disabilities.

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          Joyce, while you're right that I don't have recent research about special ed, I do know that at least some local families have had their children put into programs, specifically ESL, apparently so the district could get the extra cash. In one example, the children have Spanish surnames, and even when the Mexican-born parents explained that their children were born in America and did not speak Spanish, the district would not allow them to move into regular English speaking classrooms.

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            Again, Steve, this is not necessarily a function of the local school program but of federal regulations. I don't always agree with ELD decisions but auditing of ELD programs by the state is much more bureaucratic and elaborate than special ed--then again, sped is pretty well organized paperwork-wise while ELD is not.

            ELD and special ed are completely different programs and administered by completely different sections of both school districts and the state. You are comparing apples and oranges when you take anecdotes about ELD programs and apply them to special education.

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    So lets call your plan what it really is - a voucher system. The problem with that is it would have to cover those kids in private schools as well, further dilluting the funds available for public education. Then we would also have to deal with church/state issues with regard to parochial schools.

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      Not to get too legalistic here, but vouchers may not work in Oregon because of Article 1, Section 5 of our Constitution which reads:

      "No money shall be drawn from the Treasury for the benefit of any religeous [sic], or theological institution, nor shall any money be appropriated for the payment of any religeous [sic] services in either house of the Legislative Assembly."

      Tax credits likely would work, with refundable credits for low income people.

      I disagree with your assumption that such a plan would "further dillute the funds available for public education."

      Public education doesn't mean just brick school buildings built by the government, employing public school teachers. It means educating the public, however that can best be done for the money the legislature and taxpayers have allocated for that task.

      Currently, parents who choose to educate their children outside those brick government schools don't get a share of the public money allocated to public education, but they should. Otherwise they have to pay twice; once through taxes and again through tuition. Many middle and lower income families simply can't afford that.

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    Great article! The fight by the CTU was more about the current corporate education reforms being pushed by Arne Duncan and Rahm Emanuel etc....than teacher wages. This fight is symbolic as it represents the two ways to go in "reforming" education. One is to go the corporate, anti-union, privatization of education model. The other is to ask teachers and and parents what they think their students need and fund a well-rounded education for everyone. As a public school teacher and parent of children in public schools, I can tell you that teachers work hard and are asked to to more with less. As a union member I am going to point out that my working conditions are my students' learning conditions. The current model coming from above(Arne and the OEIB and Kitzhaber) does not empower teachers, school communities and think of how to best educate children--but rather it promotes high-stakes testing, narrowing of the curriculum, high class sizes, and a rewards and punishment system to show success. It is criminal. Look to Finland, they have it figured out and a key component is having a strong system in place to make sure families and kids are taken care of with regards to medical, food, housing, etc...We here in the United States do not address how poverty is a problem in our family and student school success. Check out Oregon Save Our Schools, a truly grassroots advocacy group for public education in our state. Our only special interest is in making sure kids get a quality education. We are completely volunteer group of teachers, parents, grandparents, and community members. Further, we have no ties to money and outside interests. We are on Facebook as Oregon SOS, we have a website:, and we are on Twitter. No one else is asking the tough questions of the education reform movement in our state. Come check us out! I am very proud to be part of this group. Again, fantastic article. It needed to be written, and we need more voices like the author's to be heard.

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