Teaching Profession

Endgame Is Eyed in Chicago Strike

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 14, 2012 10 min read
Striking teachers and supporters rally in downtown Chicago on Sept. 13.

A strike last week by some 29,000 teachers here pushed long-simmering tensions over deeply divisive school improvement ideas—including changes in teacher evaluation and the takeover or closure of underperforming schools—into the national spotlight.

A framework for a tentative agreement emerged last Friday, and the union’s house of delegates was scheduled to meet this past weekend to vet a draft and vote on whether to call off the strike. Details of the agreement were still trickling out, but it appeared likely that the Chicago district had offered to restore some elements of a hiring preference for laid-off teachers, to slow the implementation of a new teacher-evaluation system, and to allow limited appeals under that system.

Students are expected to be back in school at the beginning of this week. About 350,000 students in the district, the nation’s third largest, were affected by the walkout.

“This isn’t about pay, and strikes typically aren’t about pay; they’re about other, more complicated issues,” said Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based independent consultant and expert on teachers’ unions.

In Chicago’s case, one such complication has been the volatile relationship between two powerful city players: Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the famously combative former chief of staff for President Barack Obama, and Karen Lewis, the equally outspoken president of the Chicago Teachers Union. The two have squabbled for months over Mr. Emanuel’s desire to lengthen the school day, which was until recently among the shortest in urban school districts.

The strike also raised delicate political questions for the White House during the tense run-up to Election Day. As in 2008, Mr. Obama is counting on the support of teachers, but his own education agenda has pushed for many of the reform ideas contested at the bargaining table here.

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago teachers union, left, is greeted by a union member after her meeting with the union's House of Delegates on Friday in Chicago. Lewis told the delegates that a "framework" was in place to end the teachers strike.

“The Democratic Party has become much more open to reforms, whether they be charters or merit pay or teacher accountability, that historically labor hasn’t supported,” said Timothy Knowles, the director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, a group that conducts research on city schools and runs a teacher-training program.

Such divisions were on display last week, as educators, clothed in CTU red, picketed in front of their schools after the walkout began on Sept. 10. Many motorists honked in support as they drove by. In the afternoon, thousands of the teachers flooded the city’s downtown Loop area to attend rallies.

Picketers stationed a giant, inflatable rat outside the school district’s headquarters. They held up signs protesting large class sizes, too much standardized testing, and the perceived capitulation by Democrats to the education agenda of influential foundations and interest groups. One sign read, “Democratic Party, where are you?”

But above all, the teachers took aim at their city’s mayor, a testament to their frustration with his leadership of the schools, which the mayor controls under authority granted by a 1995 state law.

“Hey hey, ho ho, Rahm Emanuel’s got to go,” they shouted.

The Chicago district has a history of contentious labor relations, but the strike was the first by the city’s teachers in 25 years.

Tough Time for Unions

Teachers’ unions have been under significant duress in recent years. Reform measures such as those pushed by the Obama administration threaten teachers’ hard-won seniority and job-security rights. Collective bargaining itself has been under attack by Republicans who gained ascendancy in governorships and state legislatures in the midterm elections.

Chicago Schools: Selected Milestones

1983-84 Amid ongoing district budgetary turmoil, the Chicago Teachers Union holds two separate multi-week strikes over compensation issues.

1985 Study finds that nearly 50 percent of Chicago’s high school students fail to graduate.

  • “Half of Chicago Students Drop Out, Study Finds” (Education Week, March 6, 1985)

1987 Chicago teachers again strike for 18 days for salary increase. U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett calls Chicago the worst system in the country.

  • “No Progress in Chicago Strike” (Education Week, Sept. 30, 1987)
  • “Chicago, Detroit Teacher Strikes Continue” (Education Week, Sept. 16, 1987)
  • “Districts News Roundup” (Education Week, Nov. 25, 1987)

1988 Gov. James Thomson signs the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988, decentralizing control of schools via Local School Councils and changing funding allocations.

  • “Illinois Awaiting Governor’ Pen On Chicago Plan” (Education Week, Aug. 3, 1988)
  • “Chicago School Reform Act Highlights” (Chicago Catalyst)
  • 105 ILCS 5/34-2.1

1991 District faces $315.8 million budget deficit, attributed largely to 7 percent raises granted to teachers by an interim school board.

  • “Chicago Board, Chief Face Criticism Over $316-Million Deficit” (Education Week, May 29, 1991)

1993 Start of the school year is delayed by one week due to continued budget shortfalls.

  • “Parents, Officials Scramble When School Doors Stay Closed” (Education Week, Sept. 15, 1993)
  • “Job Freeze Cited as Chicago Delays Opening of Schools” (Education Week, Sept. 15, 1993)
Paul G. Vallas, Chicago’s first schools CEO after the system was placed under mayoral control in 1995, implemented numerous measures to tighten school accountability.  —Stephen J. Carrera/AP-File


1995 Gov. Jim Edgar signs landmark legislation giving control of Chicago public schools to Mayor Richard M. Daley. Paul G. Vallas, the city’s budget director, is appointed chief executive officer of schools.

  • “Governor Signs Bill Putting Mayor in Control of Chicago Schools” (Education Week, June 7, 1995)
  • 105 ILCS 5/34-3.3
  • “Daley Names Team in Takeover of Chicago Schools” (Education Week, July 12, 1995)

1996 Vallas implements new curriculum standards, puts 109 schools with poor test scores on academic probation.

  • “109 Chicago Schools Put on Academic Probation” (Education Week, Oct. 9, 1996)

1998-99 Chicago recognized for gains in test scores and graduation rates.

  • “Increase in Test Scores Leaves Chicago Officials Jubilant” (Education Week, June 4, 1997)
Arne Duncan led the Chicago schools from 2001 to 2008. He oversaw a controversial program to replace underperforming schools with small schools run by private operators.—Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun Times/AP/File


2001 Arne Duncan replaces Vallas as schools CEO, continues accountability emphasis.

  • “Chicago Chief Named Amid Urban Turnover” (Education Week, July 11, 2001)

2004 Duncan launches Renaissance 2010, a plan to shutter underperforming schools and convert them into small schools run by private operators.

  • “Chicago to ‘Start Over’ With 100 Small Schools” (Education Week, July 14, 2004)

2007 District sees jump in students’ college-attendance rate.

  • “Chicago District Focusing On Pathways to College” (Education Week, July 11, 2008)

2009 Duncan is appointed U.S. Secretary of Education by President Obama.

  • “Duncan Confirmed as Secretary of Education” (Education Week, January 21, 2009)
Rham Emanuel, the Chicago mayor, left, and his schools chief, Jean-Claude Brizard, right, have sought to extend school days and increase the role of student test scores in evaluations. —Paul Beaty/AP-File


2011 Rahm Emanuel, former first chief of staff for President Obama, is elected Mayor of Chicago. While facing a budget gap, the district implements plans to extend school day and revamp teacher evaluations, and cancels a negotiated 4 percent salary increase for teachers.

  • “Chicago Reaches Deal on School Day Length” (Education Week, Nov. 16, 2011)

2012 Chicago teachers strike.

The economic crisis, meanwhile, has left additional K-12 financing, the usual lubricant for advancing contested policy changes, in short supply. The Chicago district, for example, faces a deficit approaching $700 million this school year.

And such tensions have taken place against a backdrop of widespread depictions of the unions as the main obstacle to school improvement, whether in newspaper op-ed commentaries or the heavily promoted 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman.’ ”

The combined force of those factors has contributed to falling union membership and waning political power.

Tense Relationship

In Chicago, enmity between the CTU, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, and Mr. Emanuel, who took office in May 2011, had been building long before teachers walked off the job, with their differences centering largely on wages and longer school hours.

Last year, the union had dismissed Mr. Emanuel’s bid to extend the school day in exchange for a minimal pay increase—a proposal that came just months after the school board canceled a previously negotiated 4 percent increase for teachers. When that plan failed, the mayor attempted an end run around the union by getting individual schools to adopt the longer day voluntarily in exchange for teacher bonuses.

In June, the CTU flexed its muscle through a strike-authorization vote affirmed by more than 90 percent of its members. The victory was symbolic as well as functional: A 2011 state law had raised the union’s strike threshold to 75 percent, a figure some of the law’s supporters had painted as unattainable.

The district and the union struck a bargain in July to rehire 477 teachers to create the longer school day without extending current teachers’ work hours. But that agreement didn’t lead to a breakthrough in negotiations on other issues that had festered since the previous fall.

For its part, the union had pushed for hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes, for restoring arts and other programming, and for adding more social workers and nurses. On the picket lines, many teachers cited those elements and other working conditions as reasons behind their protest.

“We’re showing Rahm Emanuel we’re strong, we’re united, and we’re getting what schools need, not just what teachers want,” said María Ramírez, a 1st grade bilingual education teacher.

Topping her wish list: working air conditioning, a school playground, and the art and music teachers promised as part of the longer school day.

Thorny Issues

At the negotiating table, wage issues appeared mostly settled by midweek, with the district offering an average increase of 16 percent for teachers over the life of the contract, including premiums for experience and advanced degrees. The district had previously sought to end such premiums.

In all, the package would cost $320 million. It was not clear at press time whether those figures were incorporated into the deal’s outline.

As the volatile negotiations continued, issues surrounding teacher evaluation and job security arose as the primary sticking points. District officials had wanted to exceed the state-set percentage of each teacher’s evaluation that would be based on growth in student achievement, but the union steadfastly opposed that idea.

The union contended that teachers instructing disadvantaged students would be penalized under such a system.

The fallout from the district’s past reform efforts also shaped the union’s demands for more job security. Many of those efforts were launched during U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s tenure as the Chicago schools’ chief executive officer, from 2001 to 2008.

“The contract negotiations have been going on since November, but the disrespect of teachers and parents and poor communities has been happening since 2004,” said Jitu Brown, an education organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which has a long-standing relationship with the CTU.

Mr. Brown was referring to the district’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, which aimed to shutter underperforming schools and convert them into smaller schools run by private operators. He said the program had led to school closures that displaced students and cost teachers their jobs.

Fearing the district plans to continue such policies, the CTU pressed officials to restore “recall rights,” under which teachers who are laid off or displaced through school closures or shake-ups would get priority for rehiring. Recall rights were eliminated in Chicago in 1995.

The city’s most recent public offer to the union made concessions in that direction—permitting, for instance, teachers in schools being closed to get first dibs on positions in the schools to which their pupils are transferred.

If accepted, such policies would stand in contrast to trends elsewhere. Other urban districts, including Baltimore and New York City, have whittled down seniority as a factor in placement decisions.

On the evaluation issue, the city offered teachers the chance to appeal their ratings, and proposed that the new system would carry no consequences in the first year of implementation.

Challenges for Parents

While the teachers walked, churches, community organizations, and recreational facilities scrambled to put together programming to keep children occupied. The city’s board of education approved some $25 million to keep 147 schools open as a contingency plan for parents unable to find other alternatives. (“In Designated Schools, Children Play Waiting Games,” this issue.)

The teachers’ union had tried to cultivate support from parent groups, and many parents turned up for rallies, some with their children in tow. Local polls showed a plurality of the public at large, and slightly more than half of parents specifically, supporting the union’s decision to strike.

Yet many parents found the issues behind the strike difficult to parse, or were worried about more immediate matters, such as making child-care arrangements.

“They don’t understand what’s happening, or why it’s happening. Most of the parents haven’t really chosen a side. They just want the strike to end,” said Phillip Jackson, the executive director of the Black Star Project, a Chicago-based organization that pushes for excellence in education.“They’re saying, ‘We want our children back in school. Do whatever it takes to get them there,’ ” Mr. Jackson said.

Outside Jacob Beidler Elementary School, in the Garfield neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, a woman who would identify herself only as Ms. Ambrose said she wasn’t sure how she would balance child care for her 5-year-old daughter with work commitments and a degree she is trying to complete.

“I didn’t know how serious it was,” she said of the strike. “This is at every school. I don’t know about everybody else, but if the teachers don’t get their money, it’s trouble; the babysitter can’t pick [my daughter] up at this hour.”

National Fallout?

Observers of various stripes tried to offer perspectives on what the outcome would mean for education policy and politics generally.

“If labor prevails or is perceived as prevailing, it’s probably going to motivate more AFT affiliates to take a harder line in negotiations,” Mr. Knowles of the University of Illinois said. “And if the mayor prevails, it may motivate mayors to push for more aggressive reforms. The jury is out, in large measure.”

Mayors in cities such as Boston, New York, and Washington have pursued education policies similar to those in Chicago.

But Ms. Koppich said she was less sure of the Chicago strike’s wider impact.

“Strikes come about, and are settled, by individual circumstances; what’s true in Chicago may not be true in another district,” she said.

She added, however: “I do think it is reflective of a lot of pent-up tension among a lot of teachers who are tired of being beaten up, who are tired of being told, ‘You’re not good enough.’ ”

Some commentators seized on the squeeze play faced by Democratic politicians, especially President Obama, who has posted a small lead in national polls over challenger Mitt Romney since the recent Democratic National Convention.

Teachers’ unions are among the top donors, especially at the state level, to Democratic candidates, and their members are crucial to get-out-the-vote activities for the party.

“Obama probably can’t afford to undercut a major public employees’ union less than two months before the election,” Frederick M. Hess, an education scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in his opinion blog on edweek.org. “But neither can the president let swing voters who like his reform bona fides see him walking away from his former chief of staff or his own reform agenda.”

Both of the national teachers’ unions have endorsed President Obama for re-election.

The president and Secretary Duncan avoided taking sides in the conflict, issuing statements encouraging the district and the union to reach a swift resolution.

Once the union’s delegates approve the agreement, it will advance to the CTU membership for a ratification vote.

Contributing Writer Michele Molnar also provided reporting.
A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2012 edition of Education Week as Endgame Is Eyed in Chicago Strike

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