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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.

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“Teachers see [Race to the Top] as micromanagement that reduces their status as professionals,” Ms. Ravitch wrote in an e-mail. “They were striking against high-stakes testing, against school closings, against privatization, against 17 years of failed top-down reforms.” (A pioneer of performance-based education reform, Ravich is now among the strongest critics of how these reforms were implemented nationally.)

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The union called the negotiated deal – which hasn’t been finalized and needs to be approved by the union’s 26,000 members in coming weeks – a victory, contrasting the school board’s original position with the final agreement, and touting gains such as text books being available from Day 1 and $250 now reimbursable to each teacher for classroom supplies.

The contract wasn’t perfect, Ms. Lewis said. But she added: “Do we stay on strike forever until every little thing we want can be gotten?”

By all accounts, the union won some real concessions: Merit pay, which Emanuel had initially pushed for, was dropped. So-called “step and lane” salary increases, rewarding seniority and advanced coursework, were preserved. The portion of a teacher’s evaluation that will be based on student achievement was reduced from 40 percent to 30 percent. And the union got “recall rights” – of a sort – reinstated, with a promise from the district that it would seek to fill 50 percent of vacancies from a pool of laid-off tenured teachers who have strong performance evaluations.

Not insignificantly, at a time when the district is facing about a $1 billion budget deficit next year, teachers also won salary increases averaging about 16 percent over four years. (The contract would be for only three years, with an optional fourth year that the union can vote on.)

For his part, Emanuel called the contract “an honest compromise” where “we gave our children a seat at the table.”

The city, for its part, managed to hold firm on some of the big reforms that Emanuel had said were most important: lengthening one of the shortest school days and school years in the nation, implementing a meaningful evaluation system tied to student achievement, layoffs by performance rather than by seniority, and essentially preserving a principal's right to hire the teachers he or she wants. 

But the national controversy still roils over the right (or wisdom) of big city unions to shut down a school system or to oppose more accountability for teachers.

Both sides say its movement was emboldened. Teachers’ unions may start pushing back more against accountability reforms and high-stakes tests than they have in the past, using Chicago as an example. But the anti-union forces are also likely to get a boost, having seen a vivid example of how much power a big-city union can wield when it decides to shut things down.

“Both sides will inevitably find fuel in the result,” says Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute. “But I think if I was sitting in a city hall, being a mayor in a big city in America, I would say Rahm just did something pretty remarkable, which was to leverage public opinion, legislative action, and his own relentless nature to dramatically increase the amount of time kids are going to school.” The new school day and calendar add an hour and 15 minutes to the elementary school day, half an hour to the high school day, and 10 days more per year across the board.

Some advocates of accountability-based education reform, however, say Emanuel caved to union demands.

“It’s clear [Emanuel] go rolled,” says Mike Petrilli, executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank that promotes accountability reforms. “His aspirations to be mayor for a long time, and to be a major player in the [education] reform movement – that image has been tarnished quite a bit.”

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