Column

The Agreement, the Arrangement, and the Betrayal

The dangerous false logic in political messaging about public pensions (and how to defeat it)

Javier Suárez

Powerful elected officials are playing a shrewd and cunning game designed to convince Chicago residents to break our contract with our teachers regarding the agreed-upon value of their work. This scheme sets a dangerous precedent that must be stopped and exposed for what it is—an attack on the economic security of working people across our city.

I spent several years teaching in schools across Illinois, and my students often commented on my ability to use clear explanations, metaphors, and analogies to help them see the simple truth behind a concept that may have seemed complex at first. I hope to use that skill here in my analysis of the language used to discuss public employee pensions. This is how I might have explained it to my students.

The primary weapon used by the aforementioned politicians is deceptive language. They use language that gets residents focused on a subset of a teacher’s compensation (pensions) rather than the contractually agreed-upon value of a teacher’s work. This may run counter to everything you’ve heard in the media, but if teachers are going to defeat this attack, they must understand one thing: the politicians in question don’t actually care about pensions. Their goal is to diminish the overall compensation of teachers and other public employees. Attacking pensions is just an easy way to accomplish that goal because it lends itself to public support. To win back public support, teachers must keep their argument—and their bargaining positions—focused on forcing CPS to honor the agreed-upon value of a teachers work, not on honoring pension contributions.

I will attempt to make this clear by comparing the compensation/pension issue with a hypothetical issue involving the worth of a home.

Scenario #1: A Point of Comparison: The Worth of a Home

Background: You buy a new home. The monthly mortgage payment is $1,200. You also reach an agreement on the sale of your old home.

The agreement: The buyer for your old home—let’s call him “Rahm”—agrees to buy it for $100,000.

The arrangement: Rahm pays you $52,000 and then requests that you allow him to settle the rest by paying $1,000 toward your new mortgage for the next 4 years (48 months). In essence, he agrees to repay you through a “pick up” of your mortgage payment; he pays $1,000 per month toward your mortgage, and you pay $200.

The betrayal: At the start of the second year of the agreement, Rahm attempts to shortchange you on the agreed-upon value of your home saying, “I’m going to stop making these payments because you don’t contribute anywhere near as much as I do toward your own mortgage. You need to pick up these payments yourself.”

Analysis: In this scenario, Rahm is attempting to shortchange you with a claim that you should pay your own mortgage. The proper response—particularly if you want others to agree with you—would be, “Okay, I’ll pay my own mortgage, but you still owe me $36,000 for the agreed-upon value of the home you bought from me, and you must pay up.” No sane person would argue with that. What you don’t want to do is get caught up making a public argument that Rahm should pay your mortgage. There is too much room for public confusion and far more people are likely to side with Rahm on that one, even though he is using false and deceptive logic.

Scenario #2: The Reality: The Worth of a Teacher’s Work

Background: The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) bargained with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) on a compensation package for the educational services they provide CPS students.

The agreement: CPS agreed on the worth of the professional education services provided by public school teachers at each level of experience and education. For a beginning teacher in the 2014-2015 school year, that was determined to be $54,199.

The arrangement: CPS officials requested that they be allowed to pay $50,653 to teachers as salary, while depositing the outstanding amount ($3,546) into a fund for each teacher’s pension.

The betrayal: Now, CPS is refusing to pay that $3,546.

Analysis: Unlike the first scenario, this one is true to life. For years, CPS officials have been attempting to convince Chicago’s residents to shortchange teachers on the agreed-upon value of their work by claiming teachers must “pay their own pensions.” The shrewd response—particularly if teachers want public support of their position—would be, “Sure. We’ll pay our own pensions, but you still owe each teacher the contractually agreed-upon value of our work—$54,199 in the case of a beginning teacher.” The salary without the pension would be $50,653; an amount that would qualify a family of five for reduced priced school lunch under federal poverty guidelines. The idea that $54,199—a mere $3,546 more—is “excessive” is moronic on its face. Teachers must assert, “We will accept you not diverting part of our compensation to pensions, but we will not accept you shortchanging us on the contractually agreed-upon value of our work.” Again, not many objective people would argue with that.

What teachers should not do is get caught up making a public argument that CPS should pay teacher pensions. There is too much room for public confusion and far more people are likely to side with CPS on that one, even though CPS is using false and deceptive logic. Unfortunately, the defenders of our educators get distracted by the conversation about pensions—and allow themselves to get lured into a public debate about pensions—a debate they are far more likely to lose. Teachers must take the conversation back to what matters: the contractually agreed-upon value of a teacher’s work. Teachers are far more likely to win this argument andin doing so, they will have effectively defeated the true purpose of the anti-pension argument: diminishing public employee compensation.

CPS owes billions of dollars both to banks via reckless borrowing, and to teachers via the pension system. So far, the only people CPS doesn’t want to pay are the people who actually worked for what they’re owed: teachers. It is time to put the pension argument to rest so that we can focus on the financial predators that got CPS into this mess and on the elected officials who enable those predators.

Troy LaRaviere is a CPS graduate, a CPS principal, and a parent of a CPS student. He leads Blaine Elementary, one of the highest performing neighborhood schools in Chicago, and relentlessly defends public education. He blogs about education policy and his own observations of CPS policy at troylaraviere.net. Catch Troy’s column every second week of the month.

 

Correction: A previous version of this column stated that a beginning teacher’s salary of $54,199 is $2,565 away from qualifying a family of five for reduced priced school lunch under federal poverty guidelines. The column has been updated to reflect that a beginning teacher’s salary without a pension–$50,653–would qualify a family of five for reduced price lunch.

Thoughts on “The Agreement, the Arrangement, and the Betrayal”

    • HELLO!!! Major missing info: Do not forget to tell EVERY Chicagoan that CPS teachers do NOT get social security. Can’t tell you how many people just told me to my face I was lying….”Everyone gets SS”….try that one and record the reactions. Shuts folks up pretty quickly.

  1. Great Read!!
    I don’t understand why the CTU doesn’t put out the real numbers.
    The numbers on all aspects of CPS.
    Charter School operational cost,subsidies to these schools,scores contractual obligations,and so on.
    They continually try to counter Mayor/CPS with unprepared media statements
    I only wish they would be on the offensive with facts first.

  2. Thank you for this statement. I have seen teacher’s fall into this trap of semantics and were unable to get themselves out. This analogy helps put things in proper perspective and gives us the language that is needed. How can the board be so flippant about a contract- a promise! It’s very disrespectful. Financial predators…with deceptive words…wolves in sheep’s clothing.

  3. Thank you, Troy, for your clear analogy and for your support of our work as teachers. I hope everyone who reads this shares it with as many people as they possibly can.

  4. I feel that teachers should be paid what their contracts were agreed upon. If no agreement is in effect due to negotiations of a new contract the past contract must be upheld until the agreement is made on the new contract. Their jobs have not decreased in work therefore they should be paid accordingly to the past contract till the agreement is made. The superintendent must be voted in by the people of that city and ALL administrative money and paid salaries made public. This is where the abuse of money happens.

  5. Beginning with your opening statement, I’d like to respond directly to many of your assertions one by one, interjecting some of my own commentary along the way in hopes that I might provide at least some insight as to why you may have had difficulty attaining broader public support for your cause.

    You begin by boldly proclaiming that, ‘…powerful elected officials are playing a shrewd and cunning game…’ Fair enough, they are politicians after all; but many see them as the very same powerful and elected officials that have been playing a quid pro quo game with public teachers unions for decades whereby you auction off your voting block to whomever will funnel the most public tax dollars into your own pockets. Why, even the great pro union New Deal Era President FDR once stated that, “…all Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service…. the very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with government employee organizations.” This brings me to my next point which I think goes to the very heart of the matter. You say this ploy is, “…designed to convince Chicago residents to break our contract with our teachers regarding the agreed-upon value of their work.” Allow me to provide some perspective shared by many of those Chicago residents you hope to bring over to your side of the issue. Most of them do not feel as though they had much, if any, say as far as ‘our contract’ is concerned; still more take issue with any suggestion that they took any part in some ‘agreed upon value’ assessment of said work. Granted, most are likely remiss in pouring over publicly available information on these matters or taking up cause against it, but they’d tell you it’s a busy life for those poor folks not on the government dole. What’s more, a great many families do not consider your colleagues to be ‘our teachers’ in any respect whatsoever precisely because they have judged the value of their work to be so poor that they are willing to effectively pay double tuition in order to send their children to private schools; after all, the very same strangle-hold teachers unions exert over politicians for pay, benefits and/or job security also serves to deny parents much, if any, kind of choice over how or to whom THEIR hard earned education tax dollars get spent. And the only thing that irritates those folks more than to have their very real sacrifices denied or diminished by suggesting that they must be so well off as to be able to afford private school without consequence is when they lose a good teacher who must reluctantly leave for the public sector for financial reasons. So in the minds of a great many people, both the agreement as well as the arrangement are tantamount to a sort of corruption whereby two parties agree to mutually beneficial terms while a third party gets stuck with the bill; and by force I might add.

    At some point, teachers union advocates will inexorably resort to the old tried and true assertion that equates any challenge to their demands or suggestion that parents should be afforded greater choice in how their educational tax dollars get spent as somehow being against the interests of children, particularly those from lower income families; however, this quasi-shaming tactic along with the customary narrative of ‘teacher as selfless hero’ has lost much of its sheen these last several years. Not only do many see parental choice as beneficial, most especially for the underprivileged, but as much as you may think everybody will support you grinding downtown to a halt with protesting teachers while everybody else is trying to get home to pick up their kids from daycare before 6pm, I’m here to tell you it ain’t always so. In fact, all this shouting from the mountain tops has encouraged quite a few folks to finally look under the hood to see what all the fuss is about; and I gotta tell ya, they’re none too pleased about what they’re finding. Some of the details on these contracts have left many of the populace scratching their collective heads. The very fact that you are throwing out a starting salary of $50k plus per year with summers off as some sort of travesty betrays just how out of touch you are with the rest of Chicagoans and beyond. You see, most of us had to start off closer to around $30k with crummy or no benefits, no job security and had to either live in our parents’ basement or with 2 to 3 roommates in some dinky apartment on a slightly shady side of town. We certainly didn’t expect any kind of starting salary that could comfortably care for an entire family of 5 without any kind of government assistance. This brings me to the betrayal. I actually do think most folks clearly recognize that a contract is a contract and frankly I suspect most are more than a bit surprised as to how it’s in any way legal to not only renege on said agreement, but to do so because you had brazenly spent the money earmarked for it buying even more votes for yourselves. It sounds a lot like something private sector folks might call fraud. That being said, I suspect at least part of the reason people in general aren’t as eager to take up your cause as you might expect has less to do with being manipulated by some steely eyed, curly mustached politician’s deceptive language or even just by pure self-interest; rather, I think it has to do with the mindset that if the same corrupt, no choice, no competition, self-serving, bankrupt system that has lined the pockets of teachers unions and the political elite alike for decades is somehow so messed up that it allows us to back out of the agreement in spite of it all, well then screw you. It seems when it comes to wielding undue political influence with a monopoly on education tax funds while enjoying such ‘heroic’ comparative prosperity regardless of performance, well then the rules don’t seem to apply; so I suppose when it comes to enforcing the idea that a deal is a deal is a deal, perhaps the rules can bend a little as well.

  6. Troy is really smart and fearless advocate for public education, but I think the premise is completely wrong. Pensions are the issue. Politicians avoided choosing between cuts or taxes for decades by failing to fund public sector pensions, including Illinois and Chicago teachers, adequately. Everyone involved knew this was a horrible idea but kept passing the buck. In many case public workers agreed to reduce salary demands in return for pension benefits. Now that the reckoning is near, the blame is falsely put on “unsustainable” pensions. What is required are tax increases and spending cuts to fulfill the pension commitments. Just as Illinois and CPS have not defaulted on bond or swap payments because it made binding agreements, so it must fund the pensions because those are also binding agreements.

    The 7% pension pickup originated in 1981 when Chicago was under the School Finance Authority. Inflation was in double-digits and rather than pay Chicago teachers more to keep up with inflation, CPS proposed picking up 7 points of the teacher’s 9% pension share. Why? Because CPS had to show the SFA that it could balance it budget 3 years out. Had it raised salaries by 7% (still below the inflation rate) the CPS share of pension obligation 3 years out would put the budget into deficit. The plan was to undo this the next year, but that did not happen. A Tribune editorial at the time warned that it would be nigh impossible to reverse it once it was granted. They were right. The 7% pickup of the employee share remained thereafter because reversing it fairly (salary increase to offset return to 9% teacher share) was always very expensive. Now that inflation is low (actually negative last year), it is an ideal time to reverse this. But CPS’s Feb. proposal — to fully offset the pickup reversal _after_ it has occurred — puts all the risk on the teachers.

  7. As a recent retiree, I find it appalling that teachers, or ANYONE, who has spent the better part of his/her life educating children, mostly those in poverty, are expected to live in poverty themselves. Inadequate supplies, limited resources, and average medical coverage are our “rewards” for being dedicated. We are the ones who put children first, not the districts for whom we work. Teachers are constantly asked to do more with less, and now we can’t even get our just pay? Why agree to any contract if we are so expendable? No wonder our children are failing and lie behind so many other countries! America was once on top of the charts educationally, now we barely rank in the mid-20s! Chronic cutting of salaries and benefits will only reap destruction for the USA.

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