In Chicago Strike, Teachers Draw a Line on Education Reform (+Video)

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The image of 29,000 teachers and support staff striking, just a week into the school year, and nearly 400,000 students in the nations third-largest district left without classes is not one that any mayor wants.

As Chicago teachers go into the second day of strikes, both Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis have a lot at stake and the outcome may well affect education- reform efforts far beyond the city of Chicago.

The pivotal points of disagreement in Chicago echo battles in many other districts as reforms around teacher evaluation, seniority, and teacher accountability are pushed through, but this is the first big district in which organized labor has taken such a major stand.

Its Old Labor meets New Democrat meets fiscal crisis. Thats the perfect storm, says Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicagos Urban Education Institute. Mayors are saying, 'Is Rahm going to prevail? If he does, it may mean I can push harder here.' Labor is saying, Is Karen going to prevail? If she does it means we can dig in our heels and resist the reform mantra more aggressively.' Thats whats in the balance.

The strike is Chicagos first in 25 years, and the first in a major urban district since Detroit teachers went on strike in 2006. Notably, negotiators seem to have largely agreed on compensation traditionally the biggest reason for a strike with the city ultimately offering a 16 percent salary increase over the next four years, far more than it initially put on the table. Instead, the major sticking points have been around some of the most prevalent education-reform issues, particularly teacher evaluations and job security.

That and the fact that negotiators were reportedly fairly close to an agreement over the weekend caused Mayor Emanuel to suggest, in press conferences on both Sunday and Monday, that this is a strike of choice that could have been avoided. And some wondered whether it was primarily a show of force by a strong union president eager to show Emanuel just how badly he miscalculated the unions power.

Ms. Lewis, for her part, sought to portray the union as being forced into the strike by a bullying mayor and Chicago schools CEO who arent listening to teachers on important concerns related to class size, benefits, job security, and even the lack of air conditioning in many buildings.

This is a difficult decision and one we hoped we could avoid, Lewis said in a statement Sunday night. We must do things differently in this city if we are to provide our students with the education they so rightfully deserve.

Performance-based teacher evaluations have been a contentious issue in many states and districts. Use of student test results to help measure teacher quality was heavily encouraged with the federal Race to the Top Fund, and is one of the fastest-moving and most controversial of current reforms.

In Illinois, a new state law has mandated a teacher-evaluation system which relies in part on student growth on test scores, which alarms teachers unions, who fear that teachers will be fired for factors beyond their control. Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean- Claude Brizard says that the new evaluation system was not developed to be a hammer, but rather to help teachers improve but thats not the way many teachers see it. The union claims that the proposed system could result in 6,000 teachers losing their jobs in the first few years of the program a figure the district vigorously disputes.

Another dispute has to do with job security and teacher recall specifically whether laid-off teachers will have the right to be the first hired back once the city is hiring again.

The city has made some concessions on that issue already, offering to put teachers in a reassigned teacher pool for five months, or giving some teachers recall rights for a year, depending on the reason they were laid off, such as school closings, school turnaround efforts, or other reasons. …