Teaching Profession

Strike Issues Stuck in Gray Areas, Political Nuance

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 11, 2012 2 min read
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As day two of the Chicago strike concluded, the most important development concerned the issue of teacher evaluations, and whether or not the way they are conducted can even be bargained.

At a press conference Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel asserted that teacher-evaluation details are not a “strikeable” issue, while the union contends that aspects of the plan must be bargained.

A law passed in 2011 amended the state’s labor relation laws to restrict bargaining to pay and benefits, though the city can choose to bargain over other issues, such as class size.

What this comes down to is the tricky issue of whether the evaluation system can be contested. State rules for a 2010 law revamping teachers’ evaluations required a certain percentage to be based on student achievement, but Chicago officials have sought to exceed it, to the union’s displeasure. The laws, unfortunately, left open a lot of gray areas, such as whether the board can now implement an evaluation plan unilaterally or whether it must negotiate the procedure with the CTU.

The day’s other big news came a few hours ago, when a collection of union representatives from around the nation came together for an evening press conference to support the Chicago Teachers Union in their ongoing strike.

The attendees included American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, the heads of city chapters of the Service Employees United International, AFSCME, and the unions representing Chicago transit workers, nurses, police officers, and health-care professionals, in addition to the presidents of the American Federation of Teachers’ New Mexico and Illinois chapters.

None of them said anything particularly surprising in their remarks, though the president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana probably had the best quip of all regarding Mayor Rahm Emanuel: “You can’t be a Democrat at the national level and a Republican at the local level.”

Reporters pounced on Weingarten, who had flown in just hours before to show her support, as soon as the press conference ended. For one thing, they wanted to know what she thought of the Obama administration’s so-far noncommittal comments about the strike. AFT has endorsed President Obama for re-election despite his support for teachers evaluations that include student-growth measures, charter schools expansion, and the closing of underperforming schools.

“The president has said what’s appropriate to be said, that this is a local issue,” Weingarten said. Still, she added, “It is clear that the struggle here has resonance throughout the country.”

In an example that underscores the difficulty of that precariously balanced position, I overheard the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers telling the striking teachers that he’d removed his “Reelect Obama” lapel pin.

(Image: Striking public school teachers and their supporters get emotional as they demonstrate in front of the Chicago Public Schools headquarters on Tuesday. -- Scott Olson/Getty)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.