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Strike notes

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The teacher walkout was entirely a result of the mayor’s bumbling. Bumbling on the longer school day and bumbling on the contract negotiations.

That was clear to the two-thirds of CPS parents [2] who supported the teachers in the strike.

His statement [3] yesterday focused on the longer day, as if that was what he had won with the strike. It wasn’t at all – that had already been decided, after he cut it back to seven hours in April and reached an interim agreement on staffing in August.

A year ago, he could easily have made the longer day a collaborative project. Let parents weight in on what the optimal length would be and what it should cover. See what teachers needed – they were already on board with restoring recess, which got you halfway there at no cost. Give the school district, principals, teachers and parents a year to plan it and do it right.

Listen, consult, give and take. But that wasn’t his style.

Instead he chose to deploy the longer day as a weapon against the teachers union, trying to go around the union’s contract to get individual schools to sign on — a process the labor board put an end to. And parents throughout complained [4]that information was not available and planning was not happening (a point that apparently came up in Jean-Claude Brizard’s performance review [5]).


When it came to contract talks, Emanuel apparently thought he wouldn’t really have to negotiate. He believed Jonah Edelman of Stand For Children when he said that the union could never meet [6] the higher threshold for a strike vote in SB 7. (And let’s recall Edelman, in the same video, bragging that Emanuel had repeated SFC’s talking points on the longer day throughout his campaign last year.)

CPS refused to even entertain a number of subjects [7] of major concern to the union until the impossible happened and teachers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike in June. And no serious negotiating took place until board president David Vitale joined the talks – which was only after the union issued a ten-day strike notice.

“We’ve been in negotiations since November,” John Cusick, a union delegate from Ray Elementary said. “We could have settled this during the summer, but the board negotiators didn’t get serious” until the strike notice was issued.

The mayor also claimed victory on teacher evaluations. In fact the new contract keeps the weight of student performance on standardized tests in teacher ratings to the minimum mandated by law (it also includes important protections for teachers). “It wasn’t won by the mayor in negotiations,” as Beachwood Reporter [8] points out.


Then there was the remarkable hand-wringing by pundits when the union’s House of Delegates decided they wanted to see the contract before agreeing to it. Can’t Karen Lewis control her delegates? they asked, bewildered.

“What, do they want us to operate like the City Council?” one teacher said to me.

Yes, that’s what we want. We’re much more comfortable with concentrations of power. It makes the story line easier, for one thing – it’s just Rahm Emanuel versus Karen Lewis. Dispersal of power, participatory democracy, a style of leadership that consults its constituents – you have to excuse us, we’ve just never seen it before.


One notable factor was the degree to which the strike “was personalized to Rahm,” said veteran political consultant Don Rose. “Even the teachers’ strikes in the ’70s were not personalized…. It went on for days, in the marches and rallies and signage.”

It may be that Emanuel sought that out in order to prove his bona fides as a pro-business “New Democrat” willing to dis a traditional party base. “It was his Sister Souljah moment,” said Rose.

“The bottom line,” he argues at the Chicago Daily Observer [9], “is that Emanuel is out of the running as a presidential or vice-presidential candidate in 2016.” Maybe you can run without labor support, but running against active labor opposition is something else.


One East Coast pundit told me Lewis was hurting her cause by arguing that standardized tests don’t take into account all the issues faced by students. It may even be true, he conceded, but opponents of the union were having a field day depicting her as making excuses.

It’s a complicated issue, but it’s a potent one – particularly because, like teachers and students, parents hate excessive standardized testing and know how much harm it can do.

It may be worth looking again at the statement by FairTest [10], the leading critics of over-testing, on the Chicago strike — which it called “the latest example of the growing national resistance to failed, top-down, test-driven educational policies.”

“Across the nation, parents, teachers, and school leader are rising up to say ‘enough is enough’ to so-called reforms based on standardized exam misuse,” explained FairTest public education director Bob Schaeffer.

“From Texas to Long Island and Washington to Florida, people with first-hand knowledge of the damage being done to academic quality and equity are pushing back against the out-of-touch politicians and their funders who insist on doubling down on strategies that have not worked,” he said.

The question of fair and effective evaluation – and the use of skewed evaluation systems to get rid of veteran teachers – resonates with teachers. With parents, it might be the increase in standardized testing and yet another push toward teaching to the test.

And someday, someone’s going to start looking at how many millions of dollars are spent on these tests, and who’s making all that money from them – and maybe, what kind of lobbying these companies are doing.


Mayor Emanuel has his own public relations conundrum at this point, and it’s not just a matter of rhetoric: he (and the business leaders and newspapers) are claiming that in order to pay for the new contract, they’re going to have to close down schools.

In the meantime they’re planning to open up 60 new charter schools. In fact, this year’s budget has an additional $76 million for charters, which cost the district well over $500 million a year.

“We’re kind of confused about that,” said Wendy Katten of the Raise Your Hand Coalition [11]. “If they’re claiming they have 130,000 unfilled seats in the district, why are they opening 60 new schools? That’s crazy. That’s just absurd.”

How to make the case? Always ready to help, the Tribune offers this [12] line of argument:: charter schools are the best tool for busting the teachers union. Bruce Rauner [13], private equity mogul and major charter sponsor, chimes in that the goal is “separating teachers from the union.”


Everyone who’s talking about banning teacher strikes needs to take a deep breath and face reality. “That ship has sailed,” said Julie Woestehoff of PURE [14].


Instead, an advisory referendum for an elected school board will be on the ballot in nearly 250 precincts in November. Then there will be a push in the legislature to roll back mayoral control, under which student achievement has stagnated [15] and the gap between black and white students has grown – and under which we’ve now had our first teachers’ strike in 25 years.

I don’t know what prospects may be in Springfield, but at a hearing of the legislative task force on Chicago school facilities reform [16]last week, members were making a list of the ways CPS has failed to abide by the requirements of the new facilities law [17]. A CPS representative didn’t attend. Plenty of community activists did.

The list included failure to consider public comments on the mandated School Action Guidelines last year; CPS is so used to holding and pro-forma public hearings and ignoring the testimony that they must not have realized task force was watching. Indeed some legislators were saying [18], a year ago, that the guidelines issued then didn’t meet the requirements of the law.

Also, mandated school transition plans were lost when staff handling them were replaced; mandated support services for students in temporary living situations weren’t provided for the entire year; CPS failed to track thousands of students affected by school closings last year; and more.

CPS has to submit an updated set of School Action Guidelines in December. This year they’re reportedly planning to include utilization rates along with performance levels.

But news outlets reporting plans to close “underperforming and underutilized schools” should be warned that members of the task force have challenged CPS methods for determining both these standards. They have a strong case [18], too.  (A lawsuit filed earlier this year by LSC members, charging CPS abuses probation to take away local school control while failing to provide legally-mandated support is being appealed.)

If there are 145 schools on a list of “underperforming, underutilized” schools, as Catalyst reports, task force members argue that transparency requires an explanation of why some schools are chosen over others, and why they are chosen for closing rather than phaseout or consolidation.

At this point it would seem to behoove Emanuel and CPS to pay some heed to the issues raised by the legislators, who are representing the concerns of their constitutents.