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Chicago teachers strike ends, but political fallout is just beginning

With the strike, teachers fought back against reforms that they say come hand-in-hand with vilifying teachers. But the strike also exposed rifts in the Democratic Party over education policy that had never been put in such stark relief.

By Staff writer / September 19, 2012

Students walk through the gates outside Benjamin E. Mays Academy Wednesday morning, after Chicago teachers voted to suspend their first strike in 25 years.

M. Spencer Green/AP

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The strike is over. Some 350,000 Chicago children can go back to school Wednesday. But its effects are likely to reverberate – both nationally as well as in Chicago – for some time.

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Notably, the Chicago teachers strike was not mainly about money. Faced with the prospect that the city may close dozens of failing schools in coming years – replacing many with nonunionized public charter schools – teachers took to the streets over job security and new teacher evaluations that included student performance.

In the end, both the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the district gave in on some key areas, including compensation, teacher evaluation, length of the school day and year, and job security.

Karen Lewis, the CTU president, emerged as the strong face of teacher resistance, and Democrat Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s hard-charging mayor and the former chief of staff for President Obama, weathered a rough seven-day strike – the first teachers’ strike in Chicago in 25 years – and came out on the other side, still holding relatively firm on the areas he had said were most important.

The strike also exposed a rift in the Democratic Party over education policy that has been there for some time, but which had never before been seen in such stark relief. In Chicago, an overwhelmingly Democratic and strong union town, Mr. Emanuel faced off against one of the country’s largest teachers unions, over reforms pushed by both Obama himself and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, who used to be the head of Chicago schools.

It was notable that Obama – who risked alienating either union voters or turning his back on his own reforms – never picked sides in the strike. By contrast, GOP rival Mitt Romney and his ticket mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, publicly backed Mayor Emanuel and tried to paint Obama as the union supporter.

But beyond Chicago, the strike energized both union activists and those who see unions as the enemy of reform. For many teachers, the images out of Chicago highlighted their own deep concerns over reforms seen as vilifying teachers or privatizing education.

“The big lesson of the strike is that teachers don’t like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top,” says Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University, referring to two major federal reforms coming out of the Bush and Obama administrations.

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