Sunday, November 02, 2008

In the union's pocket

In 2005, newly elected US Senator BO visited Thornton Township High School in a predominantly black suburb of Chicago to conduct a "youth town hall meeting." The students prepared questions for the rising star of the Democrats. BO described the meeting in his book "The Audacity of Hype":

At the meeting they talked about violence in the neighborhoods and a shortage of computers in the classrooms. But their number on issue was this: Because the school district couldn't afford to keep teachers for a full school day, Thornton let out every day at 1:30 in the afternoon. With the abbreviated schedule, there was no time for students to take science lab or foreign language classes. How come we're getting shortchanged? they asked me. Seems like nobody even expects us to go to college, they said. They wanted more school.

As I hear about this visit, I wonder about the tension that must have gripped that room as those students, mostly black and disproportionately poor, pleaded with him for more school. I wondered in particular how the teachers who stood in attendance felt as it all transpired. For they knew something that the students, and maybe even BO did not: the average teacher in Thornton School District was paid $83,000 that year, even with the shortened day. That figure does not include administrators, who made significantly more. In 2005 over one quarter of the teachers were paid six digit salaries for nine months of teaching.

Did the teachers worry that Obama might realize the real cause of the short days? With teachers that expensive, how could any school afford a full day of class?

The elementary school day in Chicago proper is even shorter, at five hours and forty-five minutes. This is not for lack of funds: Chicago schools already spend $10,550 per pupil, twenty percent higher than the national average, and have the shortest school day of any city in Illinois.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), an early endorser of BO for President, has vigorously resisted attempts to increase instruction time. In 2007, CTU demonstrated its might by taking on Mayor Daley, thwarting his attempts to force full days on teachers. Their new contract contained no extra hours, but significant pay raises for the next four years. Deborah Lynch, the previous CTU president, had agreed in 2003 to a fifteen-minute increase in the length of the school day in exchange for a seven-day reduction in the school year. This minor concession, netting five hours of extra teaching, was used against her in the next CTU election, which she narrowly lost.

For teaching less than six hours a day, nine months out of the year, an entry level 22-year-old teacher with no experience will earn $43,702 this year, plus $3,059 in pension contributions. That is modest, but it is more than the city's median income. In four years his salary will increase to $57,333 with a $3,992 pension contribution. He finishes the school day when other people are headed back to the office after lunch. If he makes his summers productive, he can move into a higher salary track by going to summer school. He has a secure job and a guaranteed raise every year, regardless of economic conditions.

But for the money they spend, Chicago public schools provide very little in the way of results. The four-year graduation rate is only 54%. According to a recent study, only 6% of entering freshmen in Chicago public schools will obtain a college degree by age 25. Only 31% of Chicago high school juniors meet or exceed state standards on the Prairie State Achievement Examination.

Education is one of Obama's favorite topics in his flowery speeches delivered with dulcet tones. He seems to genuinely appreciate the fact that he could never have gotten as far as he has without the top-quality education he received at the elite private school in Honolulu and undergraduate and law degrees from two of America's most prestigious academic institutions.

In his stump speech he brought up education constantly:

"When I see my nine-year-old and my six-year-old, it makes me weep because I see children who are just as smart and just as beautiful as they are, who just don't get a shot. It's unacceptable in a country as wealthy as ours that children every bit as special as my own children are not getting a decent shot at life."

As a U.S. Senator and a state legislator BO had an opportunity to do something concrete about these children who are not getting a decent shot from the failing public school system. But the reality is that he did not take that opportunity. He can not criticize CTU for depriving Chicago school children of a full day and a full year of quality education. The union is his ally, his endorses, his donor, his supporter. He is more committed to the union than he is to the issue of education. Here is what BO himself said about his relationship to the union:

"I owe those unions. When their leaders call, I do my best to call them back right away. I don't consider this corrupting in any way. I don't mind feeling obligated towards teachers in some of the toughest schools in the country, many of whom have to dip into their own pockets at the beginning of every school year to buy crayons and books for their students."

Well, that does sound better than admitting that he "does not mind feeling obligated" toward Chicago unions who demand short work days and short work years. BO stood by the CTU in opposing even the most obvious of reforms. In 2001 he twice voted "no" on a bill which would have let school districts require unruly students to complete suspensions before they could be shunted into new school districts. The CTU rewarded BO for his loyalty in October 2007 by endorsing him for President.

A recent John McCain ad pointed out that BO's only accomplishment in improving education was supporting a bill which provided sex education in kindergarten. The BO campaign shot back with a false attack calling the McCain campaign supporters of pedophiles. A much better response would have been to give examples of actual legislation that BO had authored, or even co-sponsored, which actually improved the education of our kids, but he couldn't point to a single one.

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