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Minnesota educators, policymakers train keen eye on Chicago strike: What’s it all about?

The first two days of talks didn’t even produce agreement on what the strike was about, much less when the 350,000 students affected would be back in school.

Chicago teachers walking the picket line outside the headquarters of Chicago Public Schools in Chicago on Monday.
REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

Since 6:30 Monday morning, when Chicago’s 26,000 unionized public school teachers began walking picket lines outside the city’s 675 schools, the public has been told that the work stoppage marks a watershed moment for schools everywhere. Yet neither side has been able to articulate a crisp response to the simplest question: Why are the teachers striking?

A central complication is a sweeping, year-old, Illinois education reform, hailed as a national model by many, that changed many of the terms over which the two sides are deadlocked — and the terms by which teachers can strike.

Painted in its broadest strokes, the law allows teachers to strike over economic issues and evaluations, but not over a host of other controversial changes policymakers feel are essential to closing the achievement gap.

In practice, the test being played out in Chicago appears to be what happens if the teachers fail to find the district’s offers on those issues acceptable until the disputed changes that are more unpalatable to the union have been addressed.

Mayor calls it ‘strike of choice’

Mayor Rahm Emanuel insists the protest is a “strike of choice.” Because the Chicago Public Schools’ last offer was fairly close to the Chicago Teachers Union’s demands, it could easily have been avoided, he has said. The CTU, in contrast, says there is agreement on only six of 49 articles in the contract. Expected issues including wages, job protection and teacher evaluation are on the table, but the larger issue is “educational justice.”

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When it was passed in June of 2011, the reform had support from both parties and from Illinois’ teachers unions, which gained protection from some of the anti-labor provisions being proposed in state houses around the country.

Heightening the tension is a perception that in Chicago — Barack Obama’s hometown and the city where his education secretary, Arne Duncan, cut his teeth — the battle over the reform agenda being advanced by Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, is a national bellwether.

And because many of the thorniest provisions at the heart of the Chicago impasse have been debated by Minnesota lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recently, educators and policymakers here have a keen eye trained on the labor impasse.

Two kinds of issues under Illinois law

Building on a 1995 reform, Illinois law distinguishes between issues that districts are required to negotiate with unions and terms on which negotiation is at the district’s discretion. Wages, benefits and discipline fall into the first category; layoffs, staffing decisions and other working conditions fall into the second.

Last year, the Illinois legislature passed a number of controversial reforms, including an end to layoffs based strictly on “last in, first out” policies, teacher and principal evaluations based in part on student performance data, and streamlined processes for firing underperforming teachers.

Minnesota lawmakers also passed a bill in 2011 mandating teacher evaluations based in part on student performance data. While the baseline system is still being developed by a state task force that includes union leaders, the law specifies that 35 percent of a teacher’s assessment be based on student scores. The system being contemplated in Chicago is different in design. The proposals being debated by CPS and CTU range from 25 percent to 40 percent student data.

There was broad agreement in Illinois that change was needed. Only 60 percent of Chicago students graduate from high school, and some 6 percent from college. More than 99 percent of teachers are rated “proficient” or higher under the current evaluation system. And the district faces a projected $3 billion deficit over the next three years, which means layoffs, larger class sizes and fewer resources all around.

Because of this, the number of sticky points falling into the second, discretionary contract negotiation category went up. In anticipation, lawmakers also crafted a series of provisions designed to keep both sides at the negotiating table longer, and to make the talks transparent to the public.

75 percent threshold for strike call

To make it harder for teachers to walk out, 75 percent of union members — thought then to be very high threshold —would have to agree before a strike could be called. And after mediation failed and an impasse was declared, both sides would have to participate in a 90-day “fact-finding” process that a neutral facilitator would use to produce recommendations for a solution.

If either side rejected the proposal, it would become public, followed by a 30-day “transparency period” during which public opinion about the proposal could push each side to re-evaluate its stance. If neither blinks, following 10 days’ notice the union can strike.

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Emanuel’s agenda for Chicago, where the school board is appointed and controlled by the mayor, was already unfolding while the reform was being crafted. Immediately after his February 2011 election, he rescinded a 4 percent raise teachers had been promised and unilaterally ordered longer days and years.

Emanuel’s aggressive changes

After a state labor board ruled Emanuel could not compel teachers to work the extra time, he offered incentives for schools willing to extend their schedules. He also announced an aggressive plan to close failing schools, and announced that a move to include student performance data in teacher evaluations would begin this fall, not in 2016 as mandated by lawmakers.

And so when the union, which had been taken over by a less reform-minded, minority wing known as the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), came to the bargaining table last fall, the stage was set for what CTU President Karen Lewis predicted was going to be “a hot buttery mess.”

Mediation failed May 1. In July, it took both sides less than two days to reject the fact-finder’s proposal, which suggested teacher raises of nearly 36 percent over the life of a four-year contract. The district said it didn’t have the money, while the union was unhappy that questions about the fate of teachers laid off from closed schools and tenure were not addressed. Both camps warned that the proposed raises could double class sizes.

CPS’ ‘last and best’ offer

Sunday night, CPS released its “last and best” offer to the public: A 16 percent average salary increase equaling $320 million over the next four years; some protections for teachers displaced by school closings; joint implementation of the teacher evaluation process and maintenance of the increased, seven-hour, elementary school day. The district said it would hire nearly 500 new teachers to deal with the longer schedule.

But by then, the items on the negotiating table had been subsumed by a much larger wave of teacher anger over everything from the fact that CPS employs one social worker for every 1,000 kids to the literally stifling conditions in aging schools without air conditioning.

Monday morning a sea of union members in red T-shirts — some from the Twin Cities, including Paul Rohlfing, who has been blogging — marched on the city, demanding the return of librarians, art and music teachers and time for teaching not geared to standardized testing.

Negotiators went back to the table right away, but the first two days of talks didn’t even produce agreement on what the strike was about, much less when the 350,000 students affected would be back in school.