Why are Chicago teachers on strike?

Disclaimer - I am not a teacher and this site isn't affiliated or created with the help of the Chicago Teacher's Union.

Quick Overview

Uhm, so who are you and why'd you build this site?

Photo by Kirstie Shanley


I've put this site together in response to the anger I'm hearing from both sides. Many people are angry because they think the teachers are greedy. Still more people are angry because of how this affects their children. Our city is hurting, and the information available is confusing.

Yesterday, I saw commercials play over and over again, painting the teachers as greedy and the CPS as fair. It's infuriating when you think about what Mayor Emanuel has done to Chicago's education so far in his brief career, while sending his children to a private school that costs $25,000/year.

Am I angry that he wants the best education for his children and he can afford it? No. I'm angry that he can't relate to the damage he's done and continues to bulldoze his citizens with audacious plans.

I'm also very tired of people using the state of the world in general as an argument against the strike. Is the war overseas a good reason to allow gang-warfare domestically? No, there will always be hardship elsewhere, and Chicago is embroiled in its own battles of hardship. If you're not from Chicago, quit telling our teachers about our city and quit telling them that they should just sit complacently.

I'm not a teacher, but a concerned citizen who wants to raise a family in the great city of Chicago. I want to live out my days here and I believe in civic investment. Right here, right now, education is a problem. We're paying for our neglect of education with increased violence and gang activity. I'm tired of it.

Is it money?

That's what everyone is saying.


Legally, the union can only strike over compensation.


For the teachers, the concern is the other bits of the contract as well as the restructuring of the school system as outlined by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Reasons for the strike include, but aren't limited to:

  • CPS won't honor original pay agreement
  • City won't agree to limit class sizes
  • Additional class hours without added curriculum in place
  • City wants to shift public school monies and resources to charter schools
  • 100 more proposed school closures, in addition to previous 100 school closures
  • Management clause allowing CPS to change the contract at will
  • Removal of technology classes
  • Budget disparities between low/high income schools
  • Cutting resources for special needs students

The strike is their way of getting these problems resolved by contract—solutions in writing.

Isn't their salary enough?

C'mon! They make twice as much as I do and they chose this job!

Sort of.

This is probably everyone's biggest sore spot. As quoted by CPS officials and various news sources, the average teacher in Chicago makes $76,000. Some sources say $71,000 and some say $74,000. It varies greatly.

What's true? According to the CPS website, the average salary is actually $75,000. Not exactly obscure information for journalists.

That discrepancy seems mathematically negligible, but we're talking facts here. A small fib is still a lie, and one that seems to really irk the general public. Also, considering how easy it is to source a consistent number, it discredits the journalistic integrity of sources that can't get it right. But is the number put forth by Chicago Public Schools even accurate?

Here's a specific example: Helen C Pierce School of International Studies.*

That's my local school, and the average teacher salary there is $66,000. I based this off the Employee Position Roster 2012 from CPS. You can view the salary of every Chicago Public School system employee from lunch monitor to principal.

$66,000 is an average I calculated by only including full-time teachers—no principals who typically earn $130,000. If you remember the law of averages, outliers can throw a whole curve. If you were a student in a class that graded or tested on curves, you probably hated the nerds for throwing that curve.

*For the record, Pierce is one of the wealthier schools in Chicago and in a neighborhood that has a strong record of educational support. For instance, Hopleaf and many microbreweries helped Pierce out with a fundraiser called Kegs for Kids. Of the 47,000 residents, 44% have a college degree compared to the state average of 24%. Our teachers still make $10,000 less than CPS' purported average and $9,000 less than their official average.

Something else to consider is what average means.

Average doesn't mean everyone or even necessarily most. In fact, an average is the top of the curve so about 50% make less.

The average starting salary of someone with an MBA is $88,626 according to the Wall Street Journal.

If you look at the Employee Position Report from CPS, it seems that most teachers either make less than $60,000 or greater than $70,000. I feel safe betting that teachers who've worked for years and have a master's degree are the ones making more.

I see a lot of teachers making around $40,000, in the CPS-reported figures.

According to the Sun-times:

But the annual increases for teachers in CPS are much smaller than the annual increases in many suburban districts. For example, a teacher with a master's degree, 30 additional credit hours, and ten years of experience, can expect to earn $87,513 in Evanston this year; last year, in Oak Park, a teacher would have made $88,978. In Chicago this year, the same teacher will earn $75,711—about $12,000 a year less than in districts to which he or she could walk or take public transportation from a home in Chicago.

So a teacher with a master's degree, 10 years of experience, and 30 additional credit hours makes $76K/year in Chicago. That's "average."

Is it evaluations?

If the teachers can't do their job, they should be fired.


On paper, evaluations and merit-based pay sounds like a reasonable way to go. In reality, the system they're proposing has already been proven to fail. Worse than failure, such measures have left other cities open to greater corruption.

New York City implemented a $56 million program to pay teachers bonuses based on merits. This program has now been halted because of its ineffectiveness.

You might point out that it's a bonus system and not like what Chicago is proposing. Except it's a bonus system and even narrower.

Chicago's merit-based pay system only gives a bonus to the principals. According to the Freakonomics blog, and their many examples, this system has failed time and again. If anything, school systems often see a negative result. By the way, Freakonomics is a book, co-authored by a University of Chicago economist, that praises the concept of merit-based pay.

Freakonomics points out:

But who knows, maybe Emanuel will pull it off and the program will be a success. Among other things, that will depend on Chicago's school system proving to be less corrupt than Atlanta's. So, we're not exactly holding our breath.

Probably the most infamous failure of merit-based pay was Atlanta's immense and widespread score fabrication scheme. Their merit-based system would reward every employee at a particular school with a $2,000 bonus for high test scores. The result: Of 56 schools, 44 had manipulated test scores.

If the success of Chicago's program relies on less corruption in our system than Atlanta, and Atlanta managed to suffer as bad as they did, then we're screwed.

But school performance...

Chicago Public Schools are doing terribly. Why should we keep investing in them?


For the teachers, striking is about fixing the system that's been broken by years of corrupt leadership and addressing the problems.

Despite an increasing number of students, Chicago has closed over 100 schools in the past decade. . So far in 2012, we've closed 17 (7 permanently, 10 for turnaround). In the next year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed the closure of another 100 schools.

You may hear about a ratio of 1:16 teacher to student ratio, and some schools might be 1:20, but keep in mind that isn't classroom size. It's mathematically impossible to keep closing schools and maintain manageable class sizes.

According to the Chicago Tribune, one of the biggest critics of the strike, in 2010 classrooms went from 28 students to 35 students. The Tribune has tactfully failed to report during the strike that the average class size now is around 40. According to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, "Class size isn't the issue."

What's amazing is that in spite of all that, according to the Tribune, last June CPS laid off 850 teachers while opening 60 new charter schools.

Charter Schools

The Mayor and others really like charter schools. They're finding the money to open 60 new ones in spite of the 100 closures we've had, so it must be a good thing right?

Not exactly. According to the Tribune, they're performing no better or worse.

Why are they widely supported? They're union-free and cheaper. They also have longer school days. It's no surprise that a Chicago politician favors organizations that work longer for less and still find time to praise him favorably in public. As the Chicago Reader puts it:

If I didn't know better, I'd say Emanuel's hell-bent on turning teachers into patronage workers—like the scores of city workers the old sewer department boss Donald Tomczak used to dispatch to the precincts on election day to work for Mayor Daley's favorite candidates, including a certain congressman by the name of Rahm Emanuel.

The Christian Science Monitor points out that the advocates for charter seem to focus on the results from the affluent outliers rather than the average ones, highlighting the already broad and accepted differences between schools with better funding. The budget disparity between different schools is unacceptable. Some kids have to bring their own soap to school, while others have arts education.

This is Chicago politics at its finest. It's no wonder that Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan fully support our Democrat Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In a well-publicized scandal in 2009, Chicago schools were under federal investigation for their admissions procedures. Application-based schools are supposed to be based on merit or lottery. Surprising no one, CPS was investigated for cronyism.

What about the kids?

They should come first and they're the ones who are hurting from the strike.

The Cost

The costliest effect is easily the hundreds of thousands of families across the city scrambling to do something with their kids while school is closed.

This is probably the hardest part for teachers. They want to be in class with their kids. The strike has a negative impact on the children and they pay for it first-hand come June.

But if you really think about what's at stake, what Emanuel and CPS are willing to sacrifice, their plans will cost us more.

Today's violence was yesterday's education. Our local workforce today was yesterday's education. Tomorrow's Chicago is today's education. Make it count.

So it's the system?

Wait, so what's the hold-up then?

Chicago Public School Administration

A lot of non-Chicagoans are weighing in on the strike, but I'll bet few of them know the price we paid when we had Ron Huberman and other Daley cronies running the schools. During one of the biggest budget crunches, Ron Huberman, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, took a raise.

According to the Chicago Reader, here's Huberman's record:

In short, here's what Huberman accomplished: He infuriated the union, got rid of some really good teachers, spent money on lawyers fighting the union's lawsuit, wound up hiring back most of the teachers he fired, and left the system still hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

The people who staff the central office make significantly higher salaries. At the time Ron Huberman was CEO, he was paid $204,000 and a year later it was $230,000. That's a 13% raise.

Current Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-claude Brizzard makes $250,000. The average administrator within CPS receives $120,000 a year.

Last June, 850 teachers were laid off in a large budget restructuring plan that was heavily criticized. Civic Federation Preseident Lawrence Msall said this according to the Chicago Tribune:

It is both frightening and politically difficult the amount of spending reductions that CPS will still have to face if this budget is enacted. The district is putting off terribly difficult but important decisions that have to be made if it is going to stabilize its finances.

This is a systematic problem from CPS' central offices up to the Mayor. Are the teachers faultless? Would you blame mid-level workers for AIG and the infamous $37 billion bailout that funded hunting trips?

It is patently naive to believe that the strike is solely about money. Maybe in another city it would be about money, but in Chicago, our politics are often convoluted and corrupt. You might argue that all politics is corrupt to a degree, but we're called the "Windy City" because our politicians are notorious windbags—not because we have wind. We've had Daleys for mayors for the past 60 years. We're a town run by the Democratic machine without the benefits of an actual bi-partisan system.

The Wall Street Journal was blunt about it:

Illinois residents may well want to weigh in on the issue, Nowlan said, given that their state "has become a bit of a laughing stock on Saturday night and evening television shows" over its reputation for corruption.

In fact, Chicago has the prestigious title of most corrupt city in the nation according to a study by UIC. The Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today all agree. As corrupt as our city is, it would take a lot to convince Chicagoans instead of armchair pundits from other cities, that an honor system could be instituted here.

To all the armchair pundits against the strike: you can't have it both ways. If you believe Chicago is uniquely corrupt, then support us when we fight back and don't tell us to roll over just to keep things moving.

It's ironic that conservatives are bowing down to the machine now just because there's a strike. You'd think the conservatives would take advantage of this situation and point out the problems of the Democratic machine, like when Rod Blagoevich's corruption came to light, instead of agreeing with them just to stick it to collective bargaining groups.

How can I help?

Sounds like the teachers have good reason, what can I do to help?

Food and Coffee

View CTU Strike Workplace Pickets in a larger map

Find a school near you and bring them food or coffee in the morning. Even if you can't bring that much, it'll definitely perk up their spirits. Teachers are picketing as early as 6:30am.

You can call Gus or Daisy at Primo's Pizza at (312) 243-1052, and order them some food.

Check out the map on the right. Chances are there's a school near you.


Wear a red t-shirt. Give a fist-pump when you see them. Honk your horn when you drive by them. Post a status update on Facebook. Send out a tweet. It means a lot.

If you have more than 300 Facebook friends and live in Chicago, chances are you know a teacher or someone who does know a teacher. Ask them directly what you can do. Every teacher I know has been deeply appreciative of supportive gestures.

References and sources

You can check out the facts for yourself and make up your own mind.


Chicago Public School Systems: At A Glance - Concise overview of basic statistics from the school system itself.

CPS 2012 Employee Position Roster - Gives a complete list of salaries for Chicago Public School employees

Administrative Compensation Report - Gives a complete list of salaries for Chicago Public School adminstrative employees

News Coverage

Chicago Reader - Rahm Emanuel Takes on Teachers Union

Chicago Sun-Times - Hard Facts Behind Union and Board Dispute

CNN - A View From The Picket Lines

Some History

These articles give a little backstory on the past couple of years of mismanagement and corruption that have led up to this strike. Why is the central office overpaid while our schools crumble? What did Emanuel inherit exactly? I strongly recommend people who aren't from Chicago read a bit about our educational history before commenting.

Chicago Reader - Do as We Say, Not as We Do (2010)

Chicago Reader - What's Next for Chicago Public Schools? (2011)