09/14/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2012

School Choice Would Limit CTU Power and Free Children to Learn

Some 350,000 Chicago schoolchildren have spent the past few days either on the streets, sitting around empty school buildings, or at home. Their teachers, on strike at the behest of the Chicago Teachers Union, have been absent from classrooms that should have been filled with the noises of a bustling back-to-school season.

Notably, tens of thousands of their public charter school peers were in class this week, spared being in the crossfire of an education fight that has to do with everything but education. Their non-unionized teachers have been on the job, hard at work.

Yet self-interested union bosses have demanded an accountability-free pay raise over the next two years, further increasing their already inflated salaries. Meanwhile, children enrolled in the public schools have had to put their studies on hold. Once again, government collective bargaining has put the interest of adults before the needs of children.

The striking teachers in Chicago are already among the highest, if not the highest, paid in the nation. The average CPS teacher brings home $76,000 per year. But the real benefit is in the generous pension packages afforded education employees in Chicago.

Teachers that retired last year, after 30 years in the system, get an annual payment of $77,400, for life, courtesy of the Illinois taxpayer.

Yet the union says that all of this compensation isn't enough. The average family in Chicago, earning around $47,000 per year, might disagree.

Moreover, the Chicago Teachers Union is blocking a more rigorous teacher evaluation system from being implemented, and, according to the Chicago Sun Times, the district has conceded.

The worst-performing 30 percent of teachers in the district will retain their jobs indefinitely, only to be dismissed if their job performance declines further. Not only is that incredibly unfair to children, but it's unfair to the hard-working, effective teachers in the district who are paid no better than those co-workers who aren't effective.

Personnel decisions made blind to job performance outcomes are partly to blame for the low levels of performance in the Chicago Public School System. Reading proficiency, the building block for academic success, remains at tragically low levels. Only 15 percent of Chicago 4th graders and just 19 percent of 8th graders can read proficiently. A mere 56 percent of students graduate from Chicago Public Schools.

The low levels of achievement in the public schools haven't shamed the union in the least. Indeed it now demands an extraordinary compensation increase as payment for extraordinarily bad job performance.

Karen Lewis, the outspoken head of the CTU, referred to the schools they have abandoned as the "real schools." That, of course, was a below-the-belt knock on the city's charter and private schools, which are in full-swing during this self-indulgent tantrum.

Let's put these "real schools" to the test, and stack their performance up against the charters and private schools in the country's third-largest school district. Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby, along with Columbia's Jonah Rockoff did just that, and found that "attending a charter school [in Chicago] improves reading and math scores by an amount that is both statistically and substantively significant."

So despite the already generous compensation in a school district that faces a $1 billion deficit, the offer of a 16 percent pay raise in addition to that, and a weakening of the proposed evaluation system, the teachers and their union remain on the streets. Chants of "Hey, hey, ho, ho. Rahm Emanuel has got to go," echo through the Windy City while students, who clearly can't afford to miss weeks of school at a time, await their return.

Illinois policymakers need to free students from a system that allows education unions to bring Chicago's schools to its knees.

They can do that by implementing widespread school choice. Chicago currently spends more than $13,000 per student. Imagine if parents could take that money to any private school. Or could use it for a combination of educational options -- private school tuition, online learning, or private tutoring. Robust school choice throughout the state would ensure parents could choose a school that best meets their child's unique learning needs, and free them from the system dominated by the CTU.

School choice is a win-win: it's good for taxpayers, and good for families. The only losers are the special-interest groups that are willing to hold children hostage, educational collateral in their effort to further inflate their overgenerous compensation and excessive power.

Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation,