Teaching Profession

Chicago Union, Board Seek Right to Negotiate

By Catherine Gewertz — September 18, 2002 4 min read
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The Chicago Teachers Union has struck a deal with the school district that would restore some of the bargaining rights the union lost in 1995, when the state gave the mayor control over the city’s schools.

If approved by the Illinois legislature, the agreement has the potential to enhance both the educational power and the public image of teachers in the nation’s third-largest school district, some observers say.

The draft legislation, unveiled Sept. 4, would still permit district leaders to make unilateral arrangements with private firms, and changes in class sizes, layoffs, pilot programs, staff assignments and schedules. But it would force management to let teachers negotiate over the impact of those changes. Disputes that arose during such bargaining would be settled by a mediator.

District and union leaders hailed the agreement as a compromise that would allow teachers a greater voice while still preserving enough maneuvering room for management.

Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the 437,000-student district, called it a “fair and flexible” arrangement that recognizes the “shared commitment” of teachers and district leaders to improve Chicago schools.

“In this wave of reform, the missing ingredient has been teachers’ voices,” Deborah Lynch, the president of the CTU, said in an interview. “We believe this agreement will translate into better programs and initiatives informed by the front-line professionals who have to carry them out.”

Election Issue

The issue of Chicago teachers’ bargaining rights has become a football in this fall’s gubernatorial race. Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, the Republican nominee, has accused his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Rod R. Blagojevich, of being a “captive” of the teachers’ union because Mr. Blagojevich supports expanded teacher-bargaining rights.

When the agreement was announced, Mr. Ryan said it would “turn back the clock” on school reform by giving teachers too much power. He gathered leading state Republicans together to publicly denounce the deal.

State Sen. Dan Cronin, one of the architects of the 1995 mayoral-control law, said in an interview that enhancing bargaining rights for teachers “dilutes” the intent of the law, which was designed to place authority and accountability for schools in the hands of one person: the mayor.

“Teacher input is fine, but more collective-bargaining rights just means more and more negotiating,” he said. “Why don’t we just give the teachers the keys to the buildings, the [district] checkbook and go home?”

Mr. Blagojevich, who won the endorsement of the Illinois Education Association, cast Mr. Ryan’s reaction as sour grapes, noting that in June, the attorney general had sought but failed to secure the endorsement of the National Education Association affiliate. The CTU is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

“Mr. Ryan has a glaring lack of substantive ideas in education, and this just helps him cover that up,” Billy Weinberg, Mr. Blagojevich’s spokesman, added. “What the school board and the union agreed on is simply the right to discuss.”

Among teachers, the desire for more influence in school policy has been a sore spot since 1995, when state leaders pared back teachers’ bargaining rights to allow the mayor a stronger hand in running the schools. Ms. Lynch made the issue a rallying cry of her campaign for the union presidency last year, and backed a legislative attempt this past spring to repeal the section of the law that restricted those bargaining rights.

During that attempt, state lawmakers and Mayor Richard M. Daley, a Democrat, suggested that the school board and the 34,000-member union instead negotiate a compromise. Talks over the summer produced the agreement announced earlier this month. Since the agreement—a draft bill—would amend a section of the Illinois Educational Labor-Relations Act, the legislature must approve it. Hearings are expected in November.

‘Part of Solution’

If approved by the legislature, the agreement could prove pivotal in repositioning the Chicago Teachers Union in the public eye, said Dorothy Shipps, a former director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research who is now an assistant professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Many of the backers of the 1995 law perceived the teachers’ union as an obstruction, rather than an aid, to school improvement, Ms. Shipps said, so their aim was to “defang” the group. “But now,” she said, “the union has taken the stand that they want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and not be seen as scapegoats for why reform fails.”

The previous restructuring of Chicago’s schools, in 1988, decentralized authority, giving an increased voice to parents and teachers. The more recent law centralized more power under the mayor and has improved district finances and governance, Ms. Shipps said, but neither has made a huge impact on teaching and learning.

“This agreement is a very positive move,” she said. “You are never going to get serious change, better outcomes for students, unless you have the teachers on board.”

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