Pressure for Chicago school reform outlasts four-week strike

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Chicago is trying to break out of a vicious cycle of public-school crises. After ending their longest-ever strike, the city's 29,000 public school teachers began returning to work yesterday. Students are scheduled to start classes today.

``After a month, I should be ready to go back,'' says Michelle Strickland, an eighth-grader on the city's South Side.

The walkout closed classrooms for 19 school days, a record even for Chicago's strike-plagued system. In Little Rock, classes for 26,000 resumed yesterday, ending that city's first teacher strike.

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Unlike Chicago's eight other strikes in the past 18 years, this one has created widespread community support for school reform.

Parent, church, and community groups around the city have banded together to push the issue. It was pressure from one community coalition that apparently helped break the deadlocked talks.

``Never have I seen such tremendous anger and never have I seen a stronger commitment on the part of people,'' Mayor Harold Washington told the Chicago Tribune Sunday, ``They are just fed up with the system that is obviously flawed.''

The mayor says he will chair an education forum this weekend to bring together all sides of the issue and discuss key objectives of reform. The move appears to signal Mayor Washington's most direct involvement yet in the city's troubled school system.

``I think the burden of proof is on the mayor,'' says Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finances, a watchdog group. ``The seeds are there for reform. [But] I don't think the [new teacher] contract guarantees reform.''

In past strikes, teachers won pay raises after the Board of Education or politicians ``found'' extra money. The practice was started by longtime Mayor Richard Daley and continued by his successors. In the 1985 school strike, it was Illinois Gov. James Thompson who came up with extra money for a settlement.

``In the last 20 years, that's been a way of doing business,'' says one community leader. ``The strike has been a useful tool for the board and the teachers' union to solve issues.''

This time, however, neither the mayor nor the governor stepped in. The Board of Education found money to raise teacher pay by 4 percent and to alleviate overcrowding at some schools by agreeing to lay off administrative staff and other employees, up to 1,700 total. The teachers, meanwhile, won't see a full 4 percent boost in pay because of lost days of work and the 4 percent raise slated for the second year of the contract hinges on a boost in school funds.

Moreover, many of the employee cuts appear to affect personnel that have contact with the students, Mr. Hess says, rather than central and district office staff.

Several state education watchers say they doubt Illinois legislators will appropriate more money for Chicago schools this year. Future boosts in state aid may well depend on how serious the city is about reforming its current system.

``I hear people saying, `Why don't you help yourself, Chicago,''' says Gail Lieberman, assistant to Governor Thompson for education.

This week might well mark the first step in that process.

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