Chicago’s Big Education, Inc.

The teachers’ union’s outsize power comes at the expense of students, parents, and taxpayers.

February 17, 2021     EducationCovid-19

On Super Bowl Sunday, the Chicago Teachers Union announced its intention to return to the classroom. Finally, Chicago’s 347,476 public school students can receive the same in-person instruction that many private and parochial students have already been receiving throughout the pandemic. Why does this seem like such a big achievement?

Other “essential” workers such as grocery clerks, doctors and nurses, and package-delivery workers haven’t enjoyed the same luxury of working remotely—and they’ve kept doing their jobs without the generous pay and benefits earned by Chicago’s public-school teachers.

In 2020, Chicago had 20,927 full-time teachers at a total payroll cost of $2.3 billion, according to a response to a Freedom of Information Act request by our organization, OpenTheBooks.com. Our auditors found that the average Chicago teacher earned $108,730 last year—$81,422 in salary and another $27,307 in benefits. Further, teachers are allowed to accumulate up to 244 sick days for use or pension credit. (A full school year runs only 175 days.)

It’s not just unionized teachers who enjoy excellent pay, perks, and pension benefits. The most highly compensated Chicago Public Schools (CPU) employee was the CEO, Janice K. Jackson, who made $322,839—a $260,000 salary and an additional $62,839 in benefits. Jackson’s salary alone was $61,000 higher than that of the U.S. Secretary of Education, a cabinet-level position. And Chicago’s 522 school principals averaged $194,000 in pay and benefits last year, with the most highly compensated earning up to $219,000. Another 304 acting, interim, assistant, and resident principals averaged $171,315 in pay and perks.

In fact, pay is lucrative across all 908 job titles in Chicago’s public school system. Custodians, for example, earned compensation packages as high as $101,177. Twenty-two custodians, with base pay up to $75,066, out-earned the $70,000 salary of the governor of Maine.

The 1,823 employees in six departments with names containing some usage of the word “diverse”—Business Diversity, Diverse Learner Superintendent and Services, Diverse Learner Related Services, Diverse Learner Quality Instruction, Diverse Learner Pupil Personnel Service, and Diverse Learner Service Delivery—cost Chicago taxpayers $221.8 million last year, with the top 1,193 employees taking home six-figure salaries. The district would probably contend that these departments are fundamental to the social safety net, but its spokespersons ignored our requests for comment.

Employed within the six departments are social workers making pay and benefits of $163,431; speech pathologists making $163,406; managers collecting $155,617; psychologists earning $141,912; school nurses earning $141,982; and many others. Maurice Swinney, Chicago Public Schools’ Chief Equity Officer, made $214,605 in salary and benefits while managing a group of six employees. We were unable to locate any public comments that Swinney made denouncing the educational losses experienced by minority students during the past year. Stephanie N. Jones, chief of the Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services, made $211,868 in pay and benefits. Latonya S. Seanior-Smith, executive director of Business Diversity, made $164,394.

The Chicago Teachers Union understands the power of the strike in the battle to secure high pay. In November 2019, the CTU walked off the job for the third time in the last eight years. After a ten-day strike, its members were awarded a five-year contract that included a 16-percent pay hike. During the pandemic, the union threatened another strike.

CTU critics say that its strike threats amount to hostage-taking. Illinois is one of the few states where teachers can strike, leaving the students as pawns in high-stakes “negotiations” between the union and the school board.

Several options exist for restoring balance between the interests of teachers and taxpayers. The Illinois General Assembly could eliminate the union’s ability to strike for pay and benefits. Or lawmakers could follow the lead of State Representative Blaine Wilhour, who supports giving parents and students more choice in education. Wilhour has introduced H.B. 2703 in the Illinois legislature, which would give students a state-aid scholarship, letting state dollars follow the student, not the bureaucracy. “The teachers union has become the biggest obstacle to upward mobility and to breaking the cycle of poverty for poor and minority students,” Wilhour says.

Reining in the CTU’s power would provide significant benefits to taxpayers, students, and parents—all of whom could use some help right now.

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