Chicago teacher strike illuminates pressing need for education reform

In Chicago, Il., 30,000 public school teachers are on strike, leaving 350,000 students out of school. The strike is a serious indictment of the state of education in the United States. It is an issue that, simply put, should not be an issue.

The disagreement between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel can be boiled down to two points: teacher pay and teacher evaluation. While the two sides are close to an agreement on a 16 percent pay increase over four years, the issue over the new teacher evaluation plan – 40 percent of which will come from standardized testing – is still in heated discussion.

Underneath both of these negotiation points, however, are two fundamental failures of a broken education system in this country.

The first: This year, the Chicago Public School District faces a $665 million budget deficit, and it could face a deficit of over $1 billion next year if things do not change. The fact that the district is this short of funding reflects a baffling problem nationwide.

Put bluntly, a lack of funding should not be an issue for public schools in this country, yet it seems every district is coming up short, year after year. While every politician likes to make empty claims in support of education, the reality of the matter is that school districts continually have to decide between cutting teacher salaries and benefits or closing down schools altogether.

The solution lies in a re-evaluation of the federal government’s priorities. In his proposed 2012 budget, President Barack Obama included $525 billion for defense spending and just $68.9 billion for education. A government that pays billions in interest on two wars, while Chicago teachers are unable to get a 4 percent pay increase for this year, needs to reassess how it spends its money.

The issue of teacher evaluation is more complicated. While new evaluations are needed to ensure that the best teachers remain in education, basing nearly half of a teacher’s performance on standardized test scores is unfair. This is particularly true because, before this year, Chicago students were in school both 10 days shorter per year and almost one hour shorter per day than national averages.

Until public school students across the country are in school the same amount of time, and these schools receive the same amount of funding, then standardized tests will be an inadequate way to measure either teacher or student performance. Unless the government is ready to standardize funding for public schools, standardized tests will remain inaccurate.

So while Chicago’s schools remain devoid of instruction, the nation needs to reconsider its commitment to the public school system. Until there is a serious discussion on education funding nationwide, the Chicago teachers’ strike will conclude without fully addressing the issue.