An Interview with Joy Pullmann: To Strike or Not to Strike?

Sep 6, 2012 by

Joy Pullmann ( is the managing editor of School Reform News and a research fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute.

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)        Joy, I understand things are tense in Chicago with the teachers union. Can you give us a summary?

Chicago teachers have for decades gotten annual raises without a hitch, as well as far-above-market pensions and healthcare. In the past two years, it has become obvious that Chicago is so broke it can’t pretend to keep affording an average $78,000 salary plus pension benefits that kick in at 60 and the ability to cash in on unused sick days.

I know an area teacher who cashed in an entire year of sick days at the end of her career and got paid her salary to not work a year plus retired at 59 on a great pension few private sector workers receive. The last five-year contract between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union expired at the end of June, and ever since then, the two have been attempting to negotiate.

The union wants across the board salary increases as well as for the city to rehire teachers only from the pool of laid-off union members rather than the best teachers principals can find. Chicago Public Schools wants a longer school day (which it got, at the expense of hiring 470 more non-core-subject teachers) and to do something about its looming $1 billion deficit. Chicago spends about $16,000 per student, enough to send them all to 64 of the city’s 70 top schools, as rated by Chicago Magazine. In the middle are the kids: Chicago has a 40 percent high school dropout rate, high poverty and violence rate (in and out of schools), and can barely get a third of its students at or above “proficient” on basic tests.

2)        I know that times are tough……But these teachers are professionals, and have invested a large amount of money in college and graduate school. Should they not get a fair return on their investment.

You’re right to point out that teachers have to spend an absurd amount of time and money getting degrees and certifications that ultimately do not improve their performance in the classroom (see Marcus Winters’ recent book, “Teachers Matter,” for a summary of related research).  Chicago and all school districts should stop requiring those expensive and wasteful actions for career advancement or hiring. Usually, though, its unions who lock those sorts of requirements into teacher contracts (see Terry Moe’s book, “Special Interest” for an overview of related research there). Nearly no one, and certainly not I, disagrees that teachers should be paid well.

But they should not be paid well regardless of classroom performance, and teachers should not be hired regardless of district needs. The latter two are what the union has for years gotten and continues to demand.

3)        Let’s talk pensions, and I will say it—“ politicians who promise more than they can deliver”….In terms of pension funds- should not a teacher get back what they have been promised, or did a lot of Chicago style politicians make promises that they can’t or won’t keep?

Good question, and a tough one. As far as I know, no one is talking about adjusting pensions for teachers currently slated to get one. Most reform centers on pension changes for new hires, and nearly everywhere existing pension benefits are constitutionally guaranteed. So that’s not a question on the table, as I understand, though it’s now obvious lots of politicians promised programs that enslave taxpayers for the benefit of public employees. Is that really what even public employees want?

4)        Joy, I talk to A LOT of teachers. And I am going to make a generalization- I do not think they are all money hungry people. Some want more supplies,  some want smaller class sizes, some want a prep period. What do YOU see as the main issue in Chicago?

Requiring schools to parent children, thus tying the hands of both teachers and parents.

5)      There has been a feeling among teachers, that there are way too many students with special needs being integrated and mainstreamed into their classrooms. Do the unions mention this as a factor or aspect to be examined? I don’t know.

6)      MANY, teachers feel there is way to much pressure and stress with all this AYP ( Annual Yearly Progress).  If more pressure is going to be put on teachers, should they not get reimbursed for their stress, grief and aggravation?

Teachers are not held directly accountable for their students’ achievement. It’s nigh-impossible to dismiss a poor teacher in Chicago. The good teachers feel this stress because they are good teachers, but they are insulted by the poor teachers who do not feel this pressure and still receive the same paychecks.

7)      I do not think ANYONE really wants to strike- but it seems that the expectations for teachers are ever increasing, and if they can’t get class sizes down…. And if they won’t or can’t remove violent, aggressive, assaultive and disruptive kids from the classrooms- what’s a union to do?

The average class size in Chicago is 16 students per teacher, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s extremely low. Most teachers would love classes that small. You’re right teachers are expected to do a lot, but they can’t be fired for doing nothing right now so those expectations matter little. Teachers and schools should be given far more disciplinary options and freedom to expel dangerous students who don’t care to learn. The lack of such options is largely the federal government’s fault (by regulation, edict, and oversight) and a refusal by local parents and communities to train their own children and demand respect in school.

8)      Further, there always seem to be continual changes as to what teachers are expected and required to do…..If a union is supposed to represent their membership- and there is no compromise or negotiation- what’s a union to do?

Disband. Individual teachers should be able to bargain directly according to their individual talents and track record.

9)      What have I neglected to ask?

About what are the best school arrangements for the children. Frankly, teachers are adults. They can and should manage themselves. What’s best for the kids should be the prime concern in this situation, and it’s one parents are best suited to judge–not the school district, not politicians, and not the union.

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