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
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
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
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. …