The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board does NOT understand Chicago Public Schools Teachers

So let me get this straight: Kristen McQueary, a Chicago Tribune Editorial Board member, wants Chicago Public Schools teachers to pay our entire 9% pension instead of the 2% that the City and CTU agreed upon decades ago.  “No way should teachers pay such a small fraction toward their own retirements when they're getting raises that far outpace the cost of living,” says McQueary.

However, just this week, the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, released a report finding that "in 2015, public school teachers’ weekly wages were 17.0 percent lower than those of comparable workers—compared with just 1.8 percent lower in 1994."

She also says, “The City Council is getting ready to jack up water bills with a new tax, following a soaring property tax hike, to pay for massive unfunded liabilities in the city's pension funds. On top of it, CTU doesn't want to take responsibility to stabilize its own pension fund. It wants taxpayers to do it.”

So let’s straighten out a few things.

Chicago teachers did NOT create the financial mess we’re in.  Catalyst-Chicago reported that “One long-overlooked consequence of the 1995 reform law [that gave ultimate control of our schools to the mayor] is that Chicago is now in . . . dire straights.”

We all know that CPS failed to make pension payments and used that money instead for CPS operations costs.  In that same write up, Catalyst-Chicago reports, “$62.2 million was diverted from pension payments to operating expenses.”

Another way we can understand the cause of this mess is through a few everyday metaphors that former CPS Principal Troy LaRaviere offers to explain how CPS failed on its agreement in the Southside Weekly.

Furthermore,  a data site designed to increase parent engagement in the district—CPS Apples 2 Apples, reports that during Arne Duncan’s leadership, while the number of CPS students decreased, the number of schools seats increased (scroll down to see the visual).  The report cited on CPS Apples 2 Apples indicates that in some neighborhoods, new schools were not recommended due to underutilization in current schools.

The recession around 2008 complicated the situation.  And now, McQueary expects teachers to make up for the poor financial decisions by non-educators with MBAs and JDs—if they even had that.

McQueary states that “teachers got total raises over three years that, including step-and-lane increases, ranged from 7.5 percent for top earners to 14.2 percent for less experienced teachers to 25.3 percent for teachers with master's degrees, according to a Tribune analysis.”

Look, I’ve been doing this for 20 years and, yes, I make a good salary.  But what I invest in my education and professional development to be a better teacher does not equal major financial gains.  I paid approximately $50,000 to get my bachelor’s degree and certification.  I graduated with $15,000 in loans.  When I started teaching, my salary was $26,000.

With today’s high college-tuition, newer teachers pay double what I did and have significantly higher loans.

For my master’s degree in writing, I paid about $15,000 out of my own pocket—which made me a pretty darn good English teacher.  How much of a pay increase did I get for that investment after I graduated?  $2,000.

I earned a master teacher certificate from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards on my own.  That was an investment of money and time, too.  I got about $500 as a bonus last week.

And we don’t teach to get jackpot pensions.  According to the Sun-Times, “The average retirement age [for Chicago teachers] was 61. The average annual pension was $51,454 compared with a median household income in Chicago of $47,831.”

So Kristen McQueary, let’s get it straight: Chicago teachers are contributing financially in significant ways.

If or when the $250 million dollar property tax increase goes into effect—because the Board of Education has the power to enact this—a whole bunch of the over 20,000 teachers who are required to live in Chicago will pay this, too.  This includes me.

So, please, Kristen McQueary, do not impose sacrifice from your conference room in a gothic tower over this city on professionals whose role you do not understand.  Hillary Clinton mentioned “teachers who changes lives” in her DNC acceptance speech—and lots of good teachers do.

Certainly, there are teachers who are not good at their jobs—every profession has that.  A complex evaluation system and due process exists for the situations when a teacher is not fulfilling his or her responsibilities.  But we must remember that sometimes, it’s not the teacher’s fault that he or she is struggling.  Tribune Editorial Board members, however, could better empathize with our reality if they accepted responsibility for the education of 130 or so students in one year, like high-school teachers do.

So many of the colleagues that I’ve worked with at alternative, neighborhood, and selective enrollment schools—and my children’s charter school teachers—are hard-working professionals who do their best every day to meet the needs of the students.

Every day, I leave my school intellectually and emotionally drained.  But as hard as teaching is, I love what I do.  So I defend my profession.

McQueary says that teachers in other parts of the state contribute 9% to their pensions.  The students we serve in Chicago confront more serious, more damaging experiences than those in other parts of the state.  And we don't get the support services to give them the help they need.

McQueary mentions the Chicago police and firefighter contributions of 9%.  But it’s not the same.  According to ABC7, the starting salary for police officers is around $47,000 a year with a good benefits package for the entire family. After 18 months on the job, that salary increases to around $72,000 per year.

Chicago Business Journal reported the salary for new firefighters at $50,490.  An new CPS teacher with a master's degree only makes a couple thousand more.

I don’t want to minimize the roles of cops and firefighters.  But if cops or firefighters are working, they’re getting paid—overtime even.

As a teacher, I have to be in my school building for over 7 hours every day. But I only get paid for 6.25 hours.  I give at least 5 hours a week for free—contractually.  Furthermore, I stay until 5:00 p.m. almost every day and work still comes home. I would not fulfill my responsibilities and meet the needs of my students if I just worked from bell to bell.  No good teacher does.

I know what I signed up for when I chose this career.  But it’s one thing for me to accept the non-compensated responsibilities.  It’s another for a Tribune Editorial Board member to expect that I accept her imposed sacrifices when she clearly does not know what my typical day entails.

McQueary also fails to recognize that Chicago teachers—who live in Chicago—pay one of the highest sales tax in the state.  We contribute that way, too.

Nowhere in McQueary’s editorial is there a mention of the questionable financial decisions by our past mayor or current one, such as how TIF funds are used.

Talk still floats around about a new Obama College Prep Selective-Enrollment high school in an affluent part of town, which would be paid for with TIF funds.  Based on the financial situation McQueary outlines, do we really need a brand-new $60 million high school?

When Hancock College Prep became Selective Enrollment—the first of its kind on the Southwest side—all that school got was a $10 million makeover thanks to the State.  The old, undersized building doesn’t compare to facilities at Jones, or Payton, or Northside College Prep.

I want to be clear: I am NOT endorsing or encouraging a teachers’ strike this fall. It’s too early for that.  The CTU negotiating team needs to fulfill its responsibility and remember to consider the opinions of the people they represent.  The team needs to increase two-way communication with rank-and-file members.  That's what we expect as teachers from our leaders, right?  This team and CTU leadership must also ensure accurate, well-grounded communications to the public to secure their support.

Near the end of the editorial, McQueary suggests CTU President Karen Lewis step off her soap box. Granted, I don’t always like how Lewis communicates.

But this Chicago Tribune editorial makes it clear that Kristin McQueary needs to follow her own advice--and step down from her own soap box in that downtown gothic tower high above our schools.

Update: At 9:10 a.m., I added a link to the Economic Policy Institute's report on the teacher pay gap. (Thanks to my colleague for passing that along.)

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