Beyond the Chicago Teachers Strike: Where the Next Fights Will Be

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John Gress / Reuters

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis smiles during a news conference in Chicago on Sept. 18, 2012.

While the kids may be back in school in Chicago, the fight over teachers’ contracts is anything but over. Local unions nationwide are feeling empowered by the seven-day strike in Chicago that ended with some significant victories for teachers. The deal, which is expected to be ratified by the union’s 29,000 members in the next two weeks, requires the school district to fill half of all job openings with laid-off teachers, a defeat for principals who wanted more choice about who they hire. The agreement also limits the portion of teachers’ evaluations that are tied to student performance to the bare minimum required by a new state law. “After 15 years of a fixation on testing, closing schools and being poked in the eye by the mayor, teachers finally said, ‘enough was enough,'” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which is the parent organization of the Chicago Teachers Union.

“What I think it’s done more than anything is change the conversation,” Weingarten said. Teachers in Chicago dug in on several issues, including evaluations, merit pay, and length of the school day, which are on the table in other districts across the country. “There had been this unholy alliance between some mayors, governors who are dealing with budget cut after budget cut and as a result not wanting to make public education a priority, combined with lots of these so-called reformers who simply want to tell teachers to do more with less, ignore their voice and then blame them when things don’t go how they think they should go.”

(MORE: Meet Karen Lewis, the Union Leader at the Center of the Chicago Teachers Strike)

As all eyes were on Chicago last week, another big fight wrapped up in Boston, where negotiations were just as contentious but were quieter because public employees in Massachusetts are prohibited by state law from moving to strike. For more than two years, negotiations between the Boston Teachers Union and the city’s School Department had made little progress, but the two groups met last week for the first time since talks broke off a month ago and reached an agreement. Under the new contract , which will last for six years, the city failed in its efforts to eliminate seniority or to lengthen the school day by 45 minutes. Boston teachers did concede to an evaluation system that is based, in part, on student performance on standardized tests, but the agreement doesn’t specify how much weight student test scores will carry. Teachers who fail their reviews will not receive a pay raise until they show improvement—that’s not the up-or-out system some reformers dream about, but it’s better than the old routine of automatically raising salaries regardless of performance.

The next battlegrounds will likely be in New Jersey. In Paterson, N.J., where teachers are entering their third school year without a contract, union leaders on Monday essentially told their members to do the bare minimum until an agreement is reached. That means no coming to work early or staying late tohelp students and no volunteering to lead extracurricular activities. “The district has taken advantage of our teachers’ good nature and professionalism to put in all kinds of extra work,” Peter Tirri, the president of the local union chapter, the Paterson Education Association, told the Paterson Press. “We’re trying to make the point that we’re tired of working without a contract.”

(MORE: Students Who Skip School Don’t Get the Consequences, Study Says)

Meanwhile, Newark, N.J., which has been without a teachers’ contract since 2010, is trying to hammer out a merit pay system that education reformers are hoping will serve as a model for the rest of the nation. The proposed system would make eligible for raises only those teachers who are rated as being “effective” or “highly effective;” the status quo ties pay increases to the number of years worked. Neither the Paterson nor the Newark unions are expected to strike (teacher strikes are legal in New Jersey, but courts have taken a hard line against them, even going as far as throwing some 200 teachers in jail during a strike in Newark in 1971), but the president of the Newark Teachers Union, Joe Del Grosso, told the Wall Street Journal his members could be swayed by the outcome in Chicago. “You have members who look at the news,” he said. “If the teachers there prevail in their way, the teachers here would want to prevail here also. It’s just human nature.”

The same is likely true for the elephant in the room, New York City, the nation’s largest school district, which has been operating without a current contract since the old one expired in 2009. The last time a contract was negotiated was in 2007, and that fight between the unions and then-Chancellor Joel Klein was an epic battle that ultimately resulted in a highly controversial contract that paid teachers bonuses if their students’ test scores rose. That contract is still in effect, but Governor Andrew Cuomo has been pushing the city to adopt a new teacher-evaluation system that will go even further, tying student performance on tests to teacher ratings that will be used to make employment decisions, including which teachers are tenured and which are fired.

(MORE: 5 Things to Know About the Chicago Teachers’ Strike)

This spring New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has mayoral control of the schools, proposed an increase in his education budget, but made it contingent on $300 million in state and federal funding that the city will only receive if it implements new evaluations like Cuomo is pushing for. No agreement has been reached and talks have stalled several times. Many observers say the union wants the clock to run out on Bloomberg so it can wrestle with his successor next year. There probably won’t be a strike—state law fines public workers if they do—but it could still be an old-school fight like the one that just played out in Chicago. “This is really an example of the unions going back to the old-school way of doing things, which is make a show of power, do not collaborate, but rather confront,” says Tim Daly, president of The New Teacher Project, a non-profit that works with urban school districts to improve teacher effectiveness. “I think it’s possible that other unions will follow the same path.” Although he and all the other reform advocates are hoping they don’t.

Kayla Webley is a Staff Writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kaylawebley, on Facebook or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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