Thank goodness, Chicago kids are going back to school.
But their week of forced vacation for a teacher strike should alarm us here in Montgomery County.
Chicago's fiscal grief is what we will face if we don’t make different choices and set a new course for our school budget.
As one popular financial blog put it, the Chicago strike underscores, one of the “most important issues of our time,” namely how to preserve a public education system that is too heavily committed to unsustainable pension and benefit commitments.
Montgomery County earlier this year unilaterally granted teachers a significant increase without any progress on resolving long-term pension and benefit guarantees, which everyone agrees are unsustainable.
Specifically, MCPS granted a two-step, seven percent increase on top of pay and benefits on top of a compensation package that already leads the region.
As The Washington Post wrote, it is not a question of whether good teachers deserve high pay—they certainly do—but it is a question of how we are going to tie pay to performance and at the same time bring our pension and benefit system into a framework that is sustainable for the future and for other public employees in our county.
These are hard problems, but taking a pass on leadership as the MCPS school system most recently did is no way to start.
The roots of this problem are an antiquated way of dealing with teachers' compensation. All contact is made through the powerful Montgomery County Education Association, the teacher’s union.
The MCEA (the Apple Ballot's authors) are increasingly no longer representing the interests of most teachers or students.
For teachers, the MCEA is fighting a rear-guard action to hang on to a benefits structure that will benefit few, if any of the younger teachers. There simply is not enough money to support the promises that have been made. Instead of facing up to facts, the MCEA is using scare tactics to hold onto a benefit for the few without looking out for the future of the many.
For students, it is worse. The Apple Ballot no longer is a document that represents the interests of the students. To hang on to the last few years of an unsustainable system, MCPS has had to make staff cuts and increase class size. The impact on today’s students is terrible.
In an environment where we need to keep excellent schools and at the same time take on big social issues such as closing the achievement gap and ensuring all kids are safe in school, we simply cannot afford to cut investment in education.
We need independent voices, which will make tough budget calls and protect the interests of everyone. The county itself has put out excellent budget documents that show where compromise can be made, but like the Simpson Bowles commission document at the national level, these recommendations have been ignored.
The road ahead will be challenging, but it is the only way to make our great schools greater and ensure that Montgomery County leads the nation in education in this new millennium.
Morris Panner, father of four children in Montgomery County Public Schools, is running for the Montgomery County Board of Education.