Teachers' crossroads

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who as President Obama’s chief of staff believed no crisis should go to waste, may have all the opportunity he can handle with the teacher strike that’s wreaking havoc in his city. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waded into the conflict, saying the teachers are acting irresponsibly and the president has taken their side – a charge the White House denies.

The issue isn’t just how much teachers make – they average $76,000 a year in Chicago and have been offered a 16 percent raise over four years – but also job security and working conditions. The mayor, responding to criticism that the growth of spending on public education has not produced commensurate results, wants to improve failing schools and link teacher evaluations to the standardized test scores their students get.

The teachers union complains, not without cause, that it’s unfair to base their evaluations on test scores in neighborhoods where poverty, crime and homelessness prevail.

Schools aren’t just for learning anymore. Even though 26,000 teachers were off the job, the Associated Press reported 144 schools remained open for children who partook of breakfast and lunch and activities, reflecting the myriad ways that schools meet needs once regarded as parental responsibilities. Even here in Frankfort, the city’s Second Street School serves free breakfast and lunch to every student who wants it, including those who could buy their own or brown-bag.

Skeptics might prefer less emphasis on social services and more on traditional instruction to prepare students for the competitive environment they will encounter as they move on to work and college.

Cost is another issue, with the Chicago district facing a nearly $700 million deficit.

Challenges here are less formidable by comparison. Franklin County and Frankfort Independent school systems drew relatively little public criticism recently for taking the maximum allowable 4 percent increase in property tax revenue. County Superintendent Chrissy Jones wants to use the additional money to give her teachers a 1 percent pay raise in hopes they won’t seek more remunerative employment elsewhere.

But whether in Chicago or Frankfort, spending growth that exceeds the rate of inflation is reason for taxpayer concern.

Local teachers, who’ve seen their own income and benefits rise dramatically since passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act 22 years ago, aren’t exactly storming the ramparts. Even the Chicago Teachers Union had gone 25 years without striking before Monday’s walkout, according to AP.

While President Obama has kind things to say about the teaching profession and defends government efforts to buttress teacher employment, he’s under pressure to produce better quality in keeping with taxpayers’ expanding investments in education. So is his former chief of staff turned Chicago mayor. Emanuel rescinded 4 percent raises for teachers after his election and called on educators to agree to the addition of 90 minutes to the instructional day coupled with 2 percent raises – which the union at first rejected but later accepted. Other issues remain to be worked out.

What happens in Chicago could eventually happen here, in some form. Teachers and taxpayers should be watching.

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