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.

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

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.

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.

“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.)

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.”

Some reforms that the city did win on – such as strengthened teacher evaluations – were mostly due to new state mandates. “It shows that state battles are still politically important,” he adds. “They set the context for what can be bargained over at the local level.”

But the Chicago strike was also notable for criticism of the union from national voices on the left. While celebrating the union's stand, some union supporters worry that it was a poor strategic decision, allowing them to win a battle but setting them up to lose the war.

“I’m happy that there are good things in this contract. Do I think they could have had them without a strike? Yes,” says Zev Eigen, a law professor at Northwestern University who specializes in labor issues. “So you have to weigh the cost.”

In the long term, Professor Eigen suggests, this strike may encourage people to legislate away union bargaining rights, as Wisconsin did, because the media, in covering the strike, didn’t distinguish between private- and public-sector unions. 

“Public-sector unions are the very weakest case for collective-bargaining rights there is,” says Eigen, who worries that the public’s taste for dismantling union rights will extend beyond the public sector into the private sector.

Major voices from the left, including The New York Times editorial board and several high-profile columnists, wrote articles criticizing the union and supporting reforms.

“There’s been a shift going on in the Democratic Party since 2005,” says Rebecca Nieves-Huffman, Illinois state director for Democrats for Education Reform, a group that is critical of unions. “Democrats are supposed to be supporting the little guy. In education, literally and figuratively, the little guys are the kids.... We’ve seen this shift where [some Democrats] are saying, 'I don’t know if taking the support of the union is in the best interest of kids.' ”

Chicago teachers, of course – many of whom were angry about large class sizes, lack of air conditioning and textbooks, and inequities they see across the system, along with the proposed reform measures – also believed they were holding students’ best interests at heart. And – at least until the second week the strike dragged on – they were fairly successful in getting the support of Chicago parents.

“It appears the collective-bargaining process is still a very important and dynamic process for both addressing the reform issues around teacher accountability and the culture in the public schools, and at the same time protecting teachers’ interests,” says Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Moreover, says Professor Bruno, the union’s success in staring down the school system over some of the reform issues, and getting a relatively favorable contract in the end, suggests “that teachers unions can actually fight and win.”

But many observers saw students as the big losers over the past week, sitting idly as big personalities flexed their muscle.

“I was of the view that this was a strike that didn’t need to happen,” says Knowles at the University of Chicago. “Seven days out of school is real…. One could say this was an incredible opportunity to learn about civic engagement, but it was done on the backs of parents and kids, and that seems like a loss.”

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