By: Ted Dabrowski and John Klingner
The difference in how Chicago’s low-income, minority students are being treated by the city’s two major school systems during the pandemic should make school choice skeptics reconsider their position.
At the heart of the issue is the Chicago Teachers Union’s absolute refusal to allow an in-class learning option for public school students. CPS teachers haven’t been in the classroom for nearly nine months and now CPS officials want to partially restart in-person learning at the beginning of 2021. CTU is hinting they’ll strike for the fourth time in less than a decade to stop that from happening.
In sharp contrast, over 2,000 Catholic school teachers of the Chicago Archdiocese have been teaching in-person, five days a week, to 34,000 city students since the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.
It’s not as if CPS students and teachers are more at risk from COVID than their private school counterparts. CPS and the Archdiocese serve the same Chicago communities. CPS serves about 350,000 students, 85 percent of them minorities. The majority of city students the Archdiocese serves are also from minority, low-income homes. The students may be the same, but the way they are being treated is far different. Here’s how:
1. In-class vs remote learning
There’s no denying the issue of classroom learning is complex. COVID hits minorities disproportionately hard. Those demographics are more likely to live in multi-generational homes and their higher incidence of underlying medical conditions makes their outcomes worse.
But remote learning only adds to the struggle of minority and low-income households. Minorities are more dependent on service jobs that can’t be done from home. Being stuck at home to take care of their kids means a loss of income that parents can’t afford, missed medical diagnoses, drug addiction, deeper poverty…the list goes on.
And for students it means lost socialization time, additional depression and anxiety, and bigger learning gaps that in turn mean bigger earning gaps in the future.
And then there’s the terrible cost of crime. Chicago youth are at far higher risk of dying from homicide than they are from COVID-19. That’s been the case since the start of the pandemic.
As of December 29, five Chicago youth had died from COVID, but 109 had died as a result of homicide. That’s 22 children dead from homicide for every one COVID death. You can’t help but wonder how many fewer Chicago youth would have died from homicide if schools had been open.
Despite knowing the damage remote learning is doing, the Chicago Teachers Union remains adamantly opposed to reopening schools in January. Never mind the overwhelming evidence of the scientific community showing that schools are not transmission hotspots. Never mind the psychological and developmental harm being done as a result of kids not being in the classroom. Never mind the steps taken by CPS to make schools more safe.
2. Power over education
The CTU’s ability to refuse an in-class option is tied directly to the lopsided bargaining power the state grants Illinois teachers unions – including the ability to strike. Illinois is just one of only 12 states that gives its teachers unions the ability to strike – a power that the CTU has used to great effect.
The CTU has gone on strike three times in less than a decade. 2012’s strike lasted one week. 2016’s strike was a one day show of force. And 2019’s was the longest in three decades, with teachers demanding more even after Mayor Lori Lightfoot had already offered the union what she termed the “most generous” contract ever.
With each strike, city officials appeased the union. And each time the CTU left CPS worse off financially, increasing the strain on the near-bankrupt and shrinking district. CPS’ credit rating at Moody’s is now four notches into junk territory – worse even than the Detroit Public School’s rating – while CPS’ student enrollment has dropped by nearly 100,000 students since the year 2000.
Long-term contracts are another source of power. By locking in raises over several years, teachers can guarantee their incomes no matter how badly the private sector that pays for them suffers – or whether teachers are even in the classroom.
The 2019 teacher contract is a perfect example. The CTU locked in a 5-year deal with CPS that gives the average teacher a 24 percent raise; school nurses, a 48 percent hike; and teaching assistants, a 31 percent increase.
That contract was already unaffordable for ordinary Chicagoans in 2019. The pandemic and subsequent economic devastation has made the terms of that contract even more absurd.
The relationship the Archdiocese of Chicago has with its teachers couldn’t be more different. Teacher employment functions just like it does for most employees in the private sector. Teachers have at-will contracts and there are no unions or collective bargaining laws. Salaries are still based on a pay scale, but they’re set by the Archdiocese.
3. Teacher costs
The result of that different relationship is that the Catholic schools provide education at a far lower cost to parents.
Teacher salaries – the biggest cost component of any school – aren’t even close. A 30-year career catholic school teacher with a Ph.D. is paid $59,390, according to the Archdiocese’s salary scale. In comparison, a new Chicago teacher with a bachelor’s degree gets $60,116.
That’s an incredible fact. The most experienced, highest-educated Catholic school teacher costs parents less than a first-year CPS school teacher.
This entire situation should be unacceptable to Chicagoans.
Chicago teachers are being paid more than ever by taxpayers, but still deliver a substandard form of education that’s doing real harm to the people they claim to care for. Take the test scores of black students at CPS, for example. In 2019, 70 percent of black 3rd-graders failed to meet the state’s expectations in English-language arts, according to the Illinois Report Card.
The scores only get worse as students spend more time in the system:
- 83 percent of black 8th-graders failed to meet the state’s expectations in English-language arts
- 85 percent of black 11th-graders failed to meet SAT expectations in English-language arts
For math, similar trends hold:
- 80 percent of black 3rd-graders failed to meet the state’s expectations in math
- 87 percent of black 8th-graders failed to meet the state’s expectations in math
- 87 percent of black 11th-graders failed to meet SAT expectations in math
Forced remote learning might make all of those statistics worse.
You can’t help but think that school choice would fix two things at once. One, it would give more parents access to private schools that are willing to do whatever it takes to provide a better education, at a far lower cost.
And two, creating viable alternatives for parents would help end CPS’ monopoly-type behavior over education – forcing the union and the administration to care more about the needs of the Chicagoans they serve.
Either way, students end up the winners.
Read more about getting students back into the classroom:
- As the Chicago Teachers Union and CPS battle over school reopenings, the exodus continues
- Look Who Is Standing In The Schoolhouse Door Now: The Chicago Teachers Union
- 25 times more Chicago youth have died from homicide than from COVID
- Support for school reopenings grows across the political spectrum
- Every Illinois school parent, teacher should know these COVID-19 facts