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

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

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.”

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.

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.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/12/2012 - 10:03 am.


    The carpetbagging union member from Saint Paul is Paul Rohlfing, who is described as a business agent for the SPFT. In that capacity I have no objection to him joining the mummer’s parade in Chicago, but an earlier MinnPost story describes him as a teacher, which is a horse of a different color.

    Is Rohlfing employed by both the union and the district?

    • Submitted by Andrew Richner on 09/12/2012 - 02:42 pm.


      If policy can be dictated on a Federal level that has effects on the working conditions of teachers across the nation, how is it carpetbagging for a teacher from St. Paul to join his fellow teachers in Chicago when they protest those conditions? Solidarity is the opposite of opportunism.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/12/2012 - 10:35 am.

    It is important to give this issue some context, I think.

    Chicago Public Schools are given $13,078 per student\per year to carry out their mission. Class sizes are very reasonable; 20.0 pupils per teacher in elementary schools; 24.6 pupils per teacher in high school. Teachers are very generously compensated; $74,839 AVERAGE salary.

    For all those rosy statistics, CPS manages, somehow, to graduate 60% if it’s students.

    It is said, and it’s true that successful education relies on much more than good teachers; it is certainly clear that paying teachers generously isn’t a silver bullet.

    So if more money is needed, and maybe it is, why would the union demand it be spent where everyone agrees it wont have a positive effect on the academic achievement of the schools?

    I know the answer, but I’d like to hear explanations from others.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/12/2012 - 11:58 am.

    The first two are easy

    First, I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Swift on two points: successful education requires more than a good teacher; and paying teachers generously isn’t a silver bullet, though I admit I’m sorry I was never part of a “Pay them generously” experiment while I was teaching.

    I claim no special expertise on Chicago’s situation, though I’m happy to see that the Illinois Labor Board would not allow Mr. Emanuel to unilaterally alter the terms of the agreed-upon contract.

    Having been through similar situations myself, I remain less than enthused about a lock-step approach to “last in, first out” when it comes to layoffs. I understand both sides of the argument there, and from my perspective, at least, there’s some legitimacy to each. My view is based, however, on decades spent in a school district where tenure was in place, but “last in, first out,” while important, was not the only principle when it came to layoffs. We were evaluated every year from the time I arrived until I retired.

    That said, those evaluations (fortunately) never incorporated student performance on a standardized test in which teachers had quite a lot invested, while student investment was zero. There were never any consequences then – and I’ve read nothing to indicate that this has changed in the intervening years, or that it’s significantly different here in Minnesota – for a student who either aced the standardized test, whatever it was being called, or a student who blew it off and made no attempt to do well.

    An educational truism is that smaller classes are better, not of themselves, necessarily, but because the fewer students a teacher has to deal with, the more attention s/he can devote to each individual child, and it’s that attention that makes the difference between a kid who “understands” fractions, or any other relatively abstract concept, and one who “doesn’t get it.” The fact-finding proposal of 36% raises over the life of the 4-year contract is, frankly, astonishing. It’s no surprise that BOTH sides thought that solution a failure from the get-go. Doubling class sizes in order to get that 36% raise would truly be a case of shooting one’s self in the foot, so I’m happy to see that neither side took that particular bait. I presume this suggestion was made on the basis of there being no increase in certified staff.

    If money in the form of salary were really the core issue, teachers would cheerfully have taken the 36% raise proposed by the fact-finder. As it is, the existing proposal of a 16% average salary increase (based on average salary of $76,000, which I believe I read in the ‘Strib, and which is higher than Mr. Swift’s figure), spread over 4 years, is $250/month – once again, on average. After taxes, it’s about $170 a month, which is certainly a significant raise, but doesn’t seem to me likely to magically make Chicago teachers part of the one percent. More to the point, $170 a month after taxes sounds a lot less like the union extorting money from a helpless school board than the total figure of $320 million. It’s a big district, so any raise is going to cost serious money.

    Unless there are some truly draconian changes in a host of laws applicable to children attending a school (public, private, parochial, Martian, it makes no difference), I know of no way to force a child to learn algebra, history, English, biology, or any other academic subject. Unless and until we get to that point, all that even the most gifted teacher with the smallest class in the coziest school in the richest school district can do is OFFER an education.

    The student, whatever her/his age, race, height, weight, or ethnic heritage, has to accept the offer. Replacing every teacher in the district won’t necessarily raise the graduation rate, and might even lower it. No matter who’s doing the teaching, doing well on a standardized test means you’re educated in roughly the same way that being able to quote lines from the Bible means you’re a Christian. It ain’t necessarily so.

    In the meantime, I have a couple questions of my own, since I’m not really up-to-speed yet on the details of the dispute:

    What’s the basis of the current evaluation system?

    The details of how the current system works in Chicago are of some importance to the whole dispute.

    How will the district deal with the projected $3 billion deficit?

    Beth’s piece suggests layoffs, fewer resources, and larger classes – all of which seem unlikely to improve student achievement no matter how “proficient” the teacher(s) might be.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/12/2012 - 02:17 pm.

      My perspective on difficult students.

      Ray brings up an important issue:

      “student[s] who either aced the standardized test, whatever it was being called, or a student who blew it off and made no attempt to do well.”

      I’ve always said, there are some kids you could put into a cardboard box with a pile of books who would emerge as Rhodes scholars. Those kids are not what I see the the profession of teaching as serving.

      It is the kids that are unmotivated, poorly prepared, poorly supported that need good teachers. And no one can dispute that those are the sorts of kids that are becoming the majority in urban school districts throughout America.

      Succinctly put, our public schools are simply going to have to succeed with the kids that show up, and a lot of them are not going to be model academics. There are people out there that are up to the challenge, but as long as schools are yoked with union seniority, work and compensation rules they are simply not going to be able to hire and retain them.

  4. Submitted by joel gingery on 09/12/2012 - 12:04 pm.

    A More Important Question

    I suggest that underlying this controversy and strike is a fundamental and important question, one that we all seem to take for granted, but is the basis for everything we as a society do in schools, and that is: “what is knowledge, and how do you get it?” A place to start is:

  5. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 09/12/2012 - 02:05 pm.

    offering an education

    Ray Schoch is correct that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. However, we can make sure there is water in the trough. Not all school districts are doing that. I know of a tenured history teacher in our school district who wasted students’ time by showing home movies of past high school football games instead of teaching history. The trough was pretty empty in his classroom, and yet he was protected by the local teachers union. I stand with Rahm Emanuel in this strike.

    • Submitted by scott gibson on 09/12/2012 - 04:03 pm.

      Out of context anecdote

      Painting with a broad brush serves nothing. Without defending this particular teacher, I know nothing of the context of the accusation. There may, in fact, be circumstances where showing a home movie of an old football game may help to illustrate some historical fact. That may be stretching to find a justification, but I don’t know the circumstances. Outsiders can make many valid educational practices seem wasteful, if they cherry pick them. It also speaks to the ongoing debate, mentioned here, that we rarely fully agree on what it is we should be teaching. It changes constantly. It reminds me of those old Senate hearings where Wm Proxmire, I believe, would rail against waste in spending on scientific research without regards to what the research would be claiming to trying to learn. It was an easy, short-sighted sell to an ignorant general public.

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/12/2012 - 05:05 pm.

    Discuss as much as you like but the bottomline is…

    are we to have public education or not. And can employees have rights in the direction of a job. I don’t want my students or myself to work with awful conditions, etc over dollars is a pretty powerful statement. Maybe i am ill informed the the figure of 90% is being tossed around as the percentage of membership voting to strike.

    I suggest a visit to the Chicago teachers union page to get more information at :

    Research rather then rely on this article alone. Btw Beth did you see and hear Karen Lewis speak when she was here. As an educational reporter you must have. Am I right ?

  7. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 09/12/2012 - 09:57 pm.

    Essential to closing the achievement gap?

    The most powerful, biggest bang for the educational buck is early childhood investment. That might be considered essential to closing the achievement gap.

    If teacher reforms and union bustingis essential the answer is simple. Take every teacher from Edina and put them in Minneapolis and every teacher from Stillwater and put them in Saint Paul.

    If poverty means nothing, and racial factors mean nothing, and it is just teachers, then be honest enough to say that every teachers from Edina is just simply better than teachers from St. Paul/Minneapolis.

    There is zero evidence that unionism or tenure affects education. That gets Herculean efforts consequences be damned.

    there is mountainous evidence that early childhood gets huge bang for the buck, and that gets zero effort from ALEC/Students First/Rahman

    How can anyone possibly say that makes any sense?

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/13/2012 - 07:59 am.

      You’re wrong

      Recent studies show that any advantage that a child gets from Head Start or similar early childhood program is lost by the 3rd grade. That’s not much bang for your buck, imo and it’s a scandal that the press doesn’t report those results.

  8. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 09/12/2012 - 10:16 pm.

    Just for perspective

    Last year my school of 1900 averaged double the predicted yearly growth across all grade levels across all teachers. Too many of our students are still too far behind and we have to work harder. However, if a Charter or TFA teacher did that they’d be labeled “beat the odds” and lavished with praise. Heck, the magic number we always hear is that a good teacher will get 1.5 times the predicted yearly growth. Does anyone think that the demoralization of the teaching profession is good for kids?

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