Teachers Union for Chicago’s Struggling Schools Pushes Expensive Climate Standards in Contract Negotiations

The contract negotiated by teachers in 2019 is due to expire in just one week.

AP/Paul Beaty
Brandon Johnson on April 4, 2023, when he was Chicago's mayor-elect. AP/Paul Beaty

Chicago public school teachers are pushing for costly green energy and climate standards as part of their contract negotiations with the city, even as enrollment and the tax base needed to fund the green refurbishments — on top of salary hikes — are dwindling.

According to an Illinois news outlet, the Center Square, teachers want massive investment from the city in new infrastructure meant to reduce the district’s carbon output. That includes retrofitted buildings, solar panels, and electric school buses, among other things. 

“The young people in this city have been very vocal about the responsibility and the accountability that grown-ups have in sustaining our Earth,” the teachers union president, Stacey Davis Gates, said in a statement to the outlet. 

In 2023, the Chicago teachers union said they needed a “green new deal” for the schools. They themselves estimated that such a program would cost as much as $14 billion — nearly 85 percent of the budget of the entire city of Chicago, which in 2024 came in at $16.6 billion. The staggering price tag would include electric buses, new HVAC systems, Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades, and city-wide facilities upgrades that have been ignored for years. 

In their ideal scenario, however, the teachers union wants to spend $30 billion for their climate upgrades. For context, the annual budget for the entire state of Illinois this year was just more than $50 billion. 

The teachers say they want to use that $30 billion to “incorporate climate resilient plans, plans to address historical environmental racism, remove lead pipes, replace crumbling buildings with modern green facilities, create full service sustainable community schools, make parallel investments in neighborhood affordable housing, and make equitable investments in robust programmatic needs across our district.”

On top of their city green new deal, teachers are asking for more staff to be hired and for increases in salaries for teachers across the district. 

These new demands come as Chicago tries to grapple with the decade-long decline in school enrollment, as well as a recent spike in net out-migration that has resulted in a smaller tax base to cover the teachers union’s pricey asks. 

Between 2012 and 2024, Chicago public schools enrollment has declined by 20 percent, or about 10,000 students a year, according to a local outlet that covers education, ChalkBeat. 

The enrollment decline is likely driven by the broader population decrease across Chicago. Between July 2021 and July 2022, the city of Chicago alone saw a net decline in population of nearly 70,000, making it the second-greatest decrease in population for an American city. Between 2022 and 2023, that rate slowed to a net out-migration of nearly 33,000, which was still the third-worst out-migration rate of any city in America. 

On top of that decline in enrollment, the students who stay in the school system are faring poorly on important educational metrics. According to the Illinois Assessment of Readiness, just 31 percent of elementary school students in Chicago are proficient in reading as of 2024. In math, just 19 percent are proficient. 

Chicago’s mayor, Brandon Johnson, has been accused of being biased in the contract negotiations because he himself is a veteran teacher of the Chicago public schools system and spent several years working as an organizer for the teachers union. In its endorsement of Mr. Johnson during the 2023 mayoral race, the union said a former teachers union president’s “spirit still guides Johnson today” after his years of working with the group. 

During an interview with a local radio show “On the Block”, Mr. Johnson said he would always put the interests of the city first, though he did not discuss specific proposals being floated by the union during ongoing negotiations.

“I’m going to hold the city’s interest, straightforward, just like I held the city’s interests with the airlines deal,” Mr. Johnson said. “Just like I held the city’s interest with the investment that Chase Bank has made with the expansion of their footprint Downtown.”

“Now, if people want to reduce this to a conversation between CTU and CPS, then they need to get to know me better,” Mr. Johnson continued. “When it comes to the liberation of people, education is one of the places in which that actually can occur. That is my primary focus, to make sure that we have an education system that is built on the values of those who made it possible for me to be here.”

The New York Sun

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