If there’s a teacher’s strike in Chicago this fall, it will be the result of Rahm Emanuel’s approach to implementing the longer school day.
And the simplest – and perhaps only – way to avert a strike will require Emanuel to take another look at the plan.
That’s the clear implication of the fact-finder’s report  issued last week by mediator Edwin Benn (and rejected by CPS and the CTU).
Emanuel isn’t mentioned by name in Benn’s report, but since he controls the school board, every option Benn outlines for the board is one that will ultimately be decided by Emanuel.
In comments on the report, the mayor did not seem inclined to consider its suggestions for settling the dispute.
According to Benn, the board “has a very straightforward option” to reduce the monetary impact of recommendations to pay teachers for the longer day and year, which he calls “the major flashpoint” of the dispute: it “can simply reduce the length of the school day and/or the school year from its stated expansion.”
Although the media has downplayed this dynamic – and the Chicago Tribune has editorialized  against compromising on the longer day (or on charter expansion) — parent groups involved in the issue are picking up on it.
Can we afford it?
In an analysis of the fact-finding report , Raise Your Hand points to the longstanding failure to address school funding issues and says, “RYH does not believe we can afford a seven-hour day that comes with a 14.5 percent raise at this time.
“A 6.5-hour day that works by moving the teacher lunch [break] to the middle of the day would be affordable,” RYH argues. “If you can’t afford something, don’t do it.”
A 6.5-hour day “is a ‘full day'” and is in fact the national average, RYH adds. And “longer or shorter, CPS has still not sufficiently addressed the issues of quality in the school day – class size, fine and performing arts, violence prevention, foreign language, physical education, etc.”
Finally, “until we get real about the state of education funding and do something to change it, we won’t make real improvements in the school day.”
Before this, RYH has called for including parents in planning and for focusing on the quality of schooling, but hasn’t taken a position on the optimal length of the day. Other groups including 6.5 To Thrive  and the 19th Ward Parents  have called for expanding the school day to 6.5 hours in elementary schools.
(In high schools – despite Emanuel’s announcement that he would scale back the longer day to seven hours — he’s still planning to expand the day from 6 hours and 45 minutes to 7.5 hours. He’s also adding ten days to the school year.)
Expanding the day to 6.5 hours is essentially a no-cost option, since it involves shifting teachers’ lunch break and adding recess for students. Staffing lunch and recess would still be an issue – an issue CPS has yet to seriously address – and the extra days would still be a factor.
6.5 To Thrive argues that a seven-hour day is too much for kids – “children need school-life balance” – and that the quality and content of learning is at least as important.
“It’s really about resources and quality,” said Tracy Baldwin of 6.5. “It’s about quality, not quantity.”
Top scores at 6.5-hour schools
While CPS  (along with the Tribune ) touts the marginally-higher gains  of Pioneer Schools that adopted the 7.5-hour day last year – despite highly mixed results; half of the 12 schools actually performed worse than the CPS average – Baldwin shared data showing that last year, 12 CPS neighborhood schools with 6.5-hour days far outperformed 24 charter schools with days ranging from 7 to 9 hours long.
The 12 schools with 6.5-hour days averaged 90.47 on the ISAT composite – nearly 15 percent higher than the CPS average. The 24 charters averaged 75.8 percent – just 0.2 points above the average. And again, half of the longer-day schools scored below the CPS average.
KIPP Ascend, with a nine-hour day (from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) scored nearly 5 points below the CPS average. The school has a level 3 performance rating – not making adequate progress. If it weren’t a charter school, it would be on probation.
[Now KIPP is getting a second campus — with a $13 million renovation  — while better-performing schools in the area crumble.]
That backs up national studies that show the content and quality of schooling has much more impact than the length of the day, Baldwin said. She says she’s heard from Pioneer School parents that “children can’t handle all that time in school – there were a lot of behavior issues.”
Pointing to statements by CPS officials about the need to focus on new common core standards, Baldwin worries that the additional time will be spent on test preparation – the opposite direction from the richer curriculum desired by parents.
The 19th Ward Parents share that concern, said Maureen Cullnan. She’s especially concerned the longer day will open the door to for-profit companies selling computerized test prep programs to school districts.
She’s heard from school administrators that CPS plans to use the longer day for computerized test prep. She stresses support for what’s called “blended learning” by the Gates Foundation, always a weathervane for the flavor of the month in the corporate reform movement.
Two months on test prep
If CPS wants more instructional time, one place to start would be reducing standardized testing and time spent on test prep, Cullnan said. She said in her daughter’s 8th grade class, “when they got back from winter break they started doing test prep instead of language arts” and continued until the ISATs in March – more than two full months.
But with common core standards and a new teacher evaluation system based on student scores, CPS continues to increase standardized tests.
CPS could also save some of the millions of dollars spent on standardized tests, Cullnan said.
Emanuel responded to Benn’s report  saying it wasn’t “tethered to reality.” What he meant was that it proposed a salary increase – between 14 and 18 percent in the first year, largely to compensate for the longer work schedule – that CPS can’t afford.
In fact the report is firmly anchored in a complex reality. It explicitly acknowledges that CPS can’t afford the raises to pay for the longer school day and year, and points out that the school board has the option of adjusting the proposed schedule.
Under state labor law the mediator must consider a range of factors “as applicable,” including the district’s financial situation, prior collective bargaining agreements, and the cost of living.
Benn accepts the board’s budget projections, and he takes into account the board’s argument that it’s already paid for the additional hours and days with 4 percent annual raises in the previous contract. He reduces the salary recommendation by the amount teachers gained over the cost of living in the previous contract, which went into effect just before the economy tanked.
Something for nothing
But the board can’t extend working hours by 20 percent and expect teachers “to effectively work the additional hours for free or without fair compensation,” he said, noting the long hours teachers work outside of class time.
It turns out that, according to Benn, it is Emanuel who is not tethered to reality, thinking he could extend the school day without paying for it. “The board cannot expect much weight, if any, to be given to a budget deficit argument to defeat the recommendation for additional compensation…when the board created the problem by unilaterally implementing the longer school day and year to the extent it has.”
This makes sense to parents. “We believe teachers should be compensated for their time,” said Christine McGovern of 19th Ward Parents.
“Our state doesn’t have the money and our city certainly doesn’t have the money,” said Baldwin. “We can’t do something that we can’t afford. I want a bigger house, but I can’t afford it. Does that mean I’m entitled to it?
“In our state and in our city we are in debt because of decisions like this, adding on programs that we can’t afford,” she said. “It’s so irresponsible. As a parent, as a taxpayer, it makes me mad.”
[From Catalyst : “(CPS) chief administrative officer Tim Cawley gave an overview of the budget and was asked if the district would be willing to scale back the longer, seven-houur day given its fiscal crisis. Cawley said no, saying district officials believe that the longer day is the ‘right thing’ to do for students….(Board president David) Vitale said CPS revenue is down this year and will decrease again next year.”]
For its part, CTU has indicated flexibility on economic issues if it can get some consideration on classroom issues . With school closings and turnarounds costing hundreds of experienced teachers their jobs every year, job security is also a key issue. CTU wants laid-off teachers to have first crack at new positions.
If CPS wants to avoid a strike, it will offer something on this. So far it hasn’t.
“At this point it’s not clear what we’re negotiating with,” said Xian Barrett, a teacher who’s active with the Caucus of Rank and File Educators . “[CPS doesn’t] want to give up anything, they don’t want to pay for anything.”
The parents’ experience with this issue – in which their concerns about the quality of the school day and about resources to back it up have been roundly ignored – have led them all to take up the current campaign for an elected school board.
Raise Your Hand, 19th Ward Parents, and 6.5 To Thrive are all working with Communities Organized for Democracy in Education  on petition drives to get an advisory referendum calling for an elected board on the ballot in precincts across the city in November. They’ve also won support for the referendum from several aldermen .
McGovern said they’re finding support for the campaign among neighborhood residents – particularly since CPS released a budget that drained its reserve fund. “So many people are just shocked at that budget,” she said.
“Parents are not at the table on decisions,” said Baldwin. “We have all these rich corporate people coming in saying we want to make changes, and they just bulldoze things through.”
She adds: “I don’t want to be protesting and petitioning, but they don’t give us any other option.”