This morning, about 350,000 students in Chicago Public Schools will be without teachers. While the 25,000-plus unionized teachers take to the picket lines in a strike over benefits and teacher evaluations, working parents are scrambling to figure out what to do.

“We know a strike is really going to be painful. People will be hurt on both sides,” Jay Rehak, a union delegate and high school English teacher, told the Chicago Tribune. “But in the end, it’s like saying, ‘I’ll be bloodied and you’ll be bloodied, but at least you’ll know not to bully me again.’”

Among other demands, the Chicago Teachers Union had asked for a 30 percent pay increase—despite the facts that just 15 percent of fourth graders are proficient in reading and just 56 percent of students graduate in the district. The school board ended up offering a 16 percent pay increase over four years, but as last night’s midnight deadline for strike negotiations neared, the union rejected the offer.

The average teacher in Chicago Public Schools—a district facing a $700 million deficit—makes $71,000 per year before benefits are included.

Reuters reports that “Chicago Public Schools has projected a $3 billion budget deficit over the next three years and faces a crushing burden of pensions promised to retiring teachers.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, formerly President Obama’s White House chief of staff, is getting an advanced class in union power. He came into office last year and asked the teachers to accept a 2 percent pay raise instead of 4 percent to try to address the $700 million budget shortfall, and the union refused.

He did reach a deal to lengthen one of the country’s shortest school days. As the Tribune describes: “In exchange for the longer school day—an additional half-hour in high schools and 75 minutes in elementary schools—CPS agreed to rehire nearly 500 teachers in non-core subjects from a pool of teachers who had been laid off. That kept the hours in the work week the same for full-time teachers.”

The most reliable data show that teachers in general work no more than private professionals in a typical workweek, even when off-site work on evenings and weekends is included. Yet the CPS school day is among the shortest for teachers in the nation.

Heritage’s Jason Richwine and the American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew Biggs did an extensive study of teacher compensation and followed up with additional discussion of controversial issues. When it comes to teacher pay, Richwine sums up:

Because the average public-school teacher already receives above-market compensation, policymakers should avoid across-the-board pay raises. Instead, they should focus on rewarding high-quality teachers with targeted salary increases.

Of course, teacher compensation is much more than just wages. Part of Chicago Public Schools’ financial problems is the guaranteed pensions for retired teachers. Richwine explains that these defined-benefit plans, which cost several times more than the typical retirement plan in the private sector, are a bad deal for taxpayers:

Since benefits accruing to today’s workers need not be paid now, states can promise generous benefits without feeling the full fiscal impact for years or even decades. Benefits to workers are guaranteed, meaning taxpayers are ultimately responsible for any shortfalls in their states’ pension systems—and there are many shortfalls.

The Chicago strike, highlighting the urgent need for education reform, comes at a time when lack of confidence in public schools is at an all-time high—and support for school choice is also at an all-time high. Is it any wonder?

Quick Hits:

  • One Chicago blogger has links to lists of school alternatives for parents who need somewhere to take their kids during the teacher strike.
  • The former Navy SEAL who just released a book about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden gave an interview to “60 Minutes” about the experience.
  • “The U.S. is ‘not setting deadlines’ for Iran and still considers negotiations as ‘by far the best approach’ to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said,” according to Bloomberg.
  • Reuters reports that GM is losing as much as $49,000 on every Chevy Volt it builds.
  • Last week, President Obama and others touted the auto bailout as a great success of his Administration. Just how successful was it?