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In Chicago strike, teachers draw a line on education reform (+video)

A key question in Chicago's first teacher strike in a generation is whether teachers will accept new rules on education reform issues ranging from teacher evaluations to seniority.

By Staff writer / September 11, 2012

Striking teachers walk a picket line outside Benjamin Banneker Elementary School in Chicago on Monday, after they went on strike for the first on Sept. 10. Union and district officials failed to reach a contract agreement despite intense weekend negotiations.

M. Spencer Green/AP

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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 nation’s third-largest district left without classes is not one that any mayor wants.

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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. 

“It’s Old Labor meets New Democrat meets fiscal crisis. That’s the perfect storm,” says Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago’s 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.' That’s what’s in the balance.”

The strike is Chicago’s 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 union’s 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 aren’t 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.”

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