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Teachers grousing about the wrong issues; students need help

On Sept. 9, the janitors leaving public schools across Chicago will lock the doors. For the first time in the last 25 years, it’s not clear when they will be unlocked.

The Chicago Teachers Union plans to strike on Sept. 10 unless a settlement is reached this weekend. This would end all academic and athletic activities for roughly 350,000 students.

At first glance, it’s a debate over teacher compensation and benefits. But it would be incorrect to frame the debate so simply. It’s not about the pay, the working hours or even the potential for future budget shortfalls — it’s about the kids.

The union is grousing over the wrong issues. Instead of threatening a strike, union officials must compromise — swiftly — and work with the Chicago Puclic Schools to improve the quality of education that students receive.

A great education is central to preparing students for success in college and in life, yet here in Chicago we are already behind. The average ACT score for freshmen at Northwestern is above 30. But for CPS students, the average score is a 17.6 — not for lack of talent, but for lack of preparation. Even students attending the best public schools in Chicago are often unprepared for the rigors of college. If a strike occurs, days and even weeks of lost instructional time will only exacerbate the number of students who remain dramatically unprepared for success in college and career.

For CPS students, this is a busy time of year. Athletes are performing in front of scouts. Seniors are planning for college with their school’s faculty. And all students are developing the work ethic they will need to succeed after graduation. Should the strike come to pass, thousands of students will get short shrift. One of us, Cristina, is a CPS graduate and the daughter of immigrants. I needed the guidance of my school’s faculty at Jones College Prep to make it to college. Had the strike occurred during my senior year of high school, I might not have made it to Northwestern.

The risks of a union strike are not just academic. Perhaps the most obvious way in which a strike would hurt students is by exposing them to violence. Chicago is in the midst of a devastating wave of violent crime. By closing school doors and shutting down athletic activities, the CTU will only ensure that children continue to be exposed to one of the bloodiest summers in the past decade.

Stopgap measures such as keeping 145 schools open for part of the day will nevertheless leave hundreds of thousands of students at home, or worse, wandering the streets. For many low-income households, it’s not possible to find or afford a baby-sitter. Cristina will have to commute two hours between school and home on Chicago’s Southeast Side to look after her younger sister if there is a strike. Other families, however, are not lucky enough to have older children who can babysit and must decide between paying for childcare, leaving children home alone, or taking time off work.

Education is the key to labor market success, the key to the American dream and the key to breaking the cycle of poverty that far too many poor Chicago youths find themselves in today. Without it, students may never be able to reach their full potential. That this simple fact has been lost in the debate is disheartening — that students could be harmed is tragic.

Cristina Lamas is a member of the Northwestern University class of 2013 and a graduate of Jones College Prep, a Chicago public school. Alex Entz is a member of the Northwestern University class of 2014 and a graduate of the public schools in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

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