The Chicago Teachers Union has a plan to fix the city’s schools. But it’s pricey.

September 13, 2012

Striking Chicago teachers on Sept. 11, 2012. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

The Chicago Teachers Union's demands in the current strike include everything from air conditioning in schools and less testing-intensive teacher evaluations to bigger pay raises. But their vision for Chicago schools goes far beyond that. A paper released this year, "The Schools Chicago Students Deserve," lays out what policy changes the union wants implemented. Most of the ideas in the paper have a solid pedigree — but they come with a hefty price tag.

Here are the union's main asks:

  • Smaller class sizes.
  • More playgrounds, recess time and physical education classes.
  • More art, dance, theater, music and foreign language instruction.
  • More funding for libraries.
  • Healthier school lunches.
  • An end to the "apartheid-like" Chicago Public School system today and to "discipline policies with a disproportionate harm on students of color."
  • Guarantee pre-K and full-day kindergarten for all students.
  • Higher teacher salaries and more teacher "autonomy."
  • Better bilingual and special needs programs.
  • Higher-quality school facilities.

Generally, the research suggests that these kinds of policies help students. Pre-K and small class sizes absolutely improve student learning, income, and even college graduation rates, and studies suggest that recess does, too. Past efforts to improve the healthiness of school food have met with success.

But the paper's rhetoric on standardized testing is a bit over the top. "Standardized testing is the primary 'policy lever' responsible for apartheid in Chicago schools," it states. Really? Bigger than the court-ordered end of the city's desegregation program in 2009? Bigger than zoning policies that price poor people and racial minorities out of neighborhoods with good schools? The paper doesn't identify a mechanism by which the presence of standardized tests could increase segregation, let alone by a greater degree than those other, more obviously related policy levers. "Standardized testing grew out of the American tradition of using ‘intelligence quotient’ (IQ) as a pretext for racist and exclusionary policies," it continues, citing the late paleontologist and IQ critic Stephen Jay Gould. It is really unclear what racists' historical misuse of social science has to do with the usefulness of standardized testing today.

The paper also argues that testing leads to "punitive measures directed against students and teachers" which disproportionately hurt black kids, and lead to "unwarranted punitive measures [and] expulsions" at charter schools. CTU is likely referring to "no excuses" charter school models which combine a heavy emphasis on improving test scores with low tolerance of truancy or delinquency. Obviously grave racial disparities remain in both schools and the criminal justice system. But the "no excuses" charters that the teachers union seems to be criticizing do much, much better than typical public schools. Joshua Angrist, Parag Pathak and Christopher Walters at MIT found that students randomly assigned to Massachusetts "no excuses" charters did much better than urban students in noncharters and than nonurban students as well. Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer of Harvard found (pdf) the same thing looking at randomly assigned students in New York City.

What's more, the gains were much greater for poorer and minority students, and Angrist's team found no evidence that attrition from charter schools (that is, the schools kicking out bad students) had any effect on the results. The idea that this kind of schooling hurts minority students just isn't supported by the evidence. The call for greater teacher "autonomy" in determining curricula is similarly problematic. An influential study by John Bishop at Cornell found (pdf) that countries with national curricula and standardized tests to assess that curriculum performed better than their peers once you adjust for demographic differences.

But apart from the segregation and autonomy sections, the CTU report generally endorses policy solutions that have a great deal of empirical support. Early childhood education is a fantastic investment. Lower class sizes really do help students throughout their lives. Even Rahm Emanuel agrees. He aggressively supports early childhood programs, rolling out a $10 million funding increase for them  this month. Indeed, there's nothing contradictory about supporting the spending increases that CTU proposes while also supporting testing and "no excuses" schools.

But these are expensive changes. Indeed, the Chicago Teachers Union estimates the cost at $713 million a year — $268 million for more supplemental services like nurses and PE, $200 million for a "more well-rounded" art/dance/theater curriculum, $75 million for all-day kindergarten and $170 million to reduce class sizes in K-3. In a school district that faces an $665 million deficit this year, that's a lot of money. And the $713 million hardly covers all of the paper's proposals. It doesn't cover lower class sizes for 4-12, or universal pre-K, or better school facilities.

The union proposes to pay for all this by diverting $159 million in city development incentives, increasing the income tax for high earners by $160 million, and by having the state institute capital gains and financial transactions taxes that raise $367 million and $110 million, respectively. That's a total of $796 million, more than enough to fund the limited version of the paper's proposals.

But there's reason to doubt that the proposals will raise that much. While high-income tax increases at the state level do raise revenue, there's some evidence that they raise less than they do federally because some taxpayers just go to another state. And there's every reason to believe this would happen with the financial transactions tax in particular. When Sweden implemented a financial transactions tax, trades just moved to London. If all of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange's business went to New York, the tax would raise no money.

What's more, all but one of these revenue options is not implementable by the Chicago city council. They must go through the Illinois state legislature, which just last year passed a big income tax increase, and may not be particularly inclined to raise taxes on non-Chicagoans again to fund Chicago schools. So implementing these proposals will require a longer legislative effort and cannot be easily accomplished within the confines of a strike.

But when the city of Chicago is not in the fiscal position to implement new spending measures, and incapable of effecting the state-wide tax increases that CTU wants, it's hard to see any of CTU's proposals taking effect any time soon. That is going to make it hard for them to get demands met during the strike. Steel yourselves for a long fall.

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