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.