Chicago Public Schools leaders and Chicago Teachers Union officials are tussling over who can rob city students of more class time in the upcoming weeks. Call it: The War of Bad — OK, Terrible — Ideas.

First, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool threatened to shutter classes three weeks early because the district didn’t get $215 million in state funds the district had relied on in its current, fiscal 2017 budget. The district has filed a lawsuit in Cook County court to get more money from Springfield.

Then CTU President Karen Lewis chipped in: She threatened a one-day teachers strike on May 1 to draw attention to the “acute crisis” facing the district. “If the board goes ahead with the threat of canceling three weeks of school, we would view their action as a massive violation of our contract,” Lewis says. “And that could provoke a strike.”

Terrible idea x terrible idea = more chaos for students — remember the students? — at CPS schools.

And there’s a third threat in the air that would shortchange those students. The union urges members to clock in and out exactly on time March 20-24. No coming in early, or staying late, to help kids understand their lessons. The CTU leadership’s point is to protest a district initiative that would increase teachers’ workload, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey tells us. “We know this will be difficult for many of you, who put your students first, but please consider the powerful message it will send, highlighting to the world how much we do for our students on a voluntary basis,” union leaders wrote to teachers.

Students who need that extra time with their teachers? Sorry, kids, you’re out of luck.

Cheating children of instructional time via the possible union actions or the district’s threat to end the school year early would be enormously destructive. Teachers and district officials can’t build on rising graduation rates and academic test scores if children aren’t in class. Keeping kids home, forcing parents to scramble for other arrangements, doesn’t generate trust in CPS — or deliver a superior education. These are the kinds of bad ideas that help parents decide whether to stick with CPS or switch to other schools.

For CTU there’s inconvenient history here: Last April, union members threw a tantrum over stalled contract talks. They walked out of classrooms for a day to protest. After that, Lewis wrote to district negotiators promising that the union would not engage in a similar strike unless it “came after the conclusion of the impasse procedures and following statutory notices required under the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act.”

Wouldn’t a May 1 Tantrum Day break that promise? “In desperate times, we look for desperate measures,” Sharkey says. “This is a desperate time for public schools. And we’re all trying to figure out what we can do to fight this crisis.”

Yes, a one-day walkout would let teachers don their bright red union T-shirts, rally downtown and vent frustration at the sorry state of school finances. They’d also lose a day’s pay, saving the district an estimated $10 million. “Some people will say, ‘Well, if you strike, won’t you be losing another day of pay?’ ” Lewis says. “But I would say if we don’t fight back, if we stay at home and they threaten us with furloughs and school closures, if we cower under the covers, then we are never going to stop these fights.”

There are many better ways for Chicago teachers to fight back, to express their anger at the district’s bungled finances and its threat to close the schools early. The teachers can rally on weekends. They can rally before school. They can rally after school. Instead of devoting so much energy to cheating students, they could send lobbyists to Springfield to help the district argue its case for more money.

Similarly, district officials can’t rely on hypothetical funds to balance the budget. With fewer students should come fewer schools. And even more central office cuts.

Ask most Chicagoans what they want to happen and here’s what we think they’d say:

School stays open. Teachers and students show up. Nothing less, whether suggested by a union official or a district leader, should ever be tolerated.

(c)2017 the Chicago Tribune

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