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Analysis: Teacher gains debated

By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah and Joel Hood, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO—While Chicago’s teachers may have drawn national attention to their cause, it’s still unclear whether what was achieved at the bargaining table during a seven-day strike was worth the disruption to teachers, students and parents.

Ultimately, the strike gave the union a platform to voice its opposition to an education reform agenda that it believes undermines the power of organized labor, devalues the teaching profession and strips funding from needy public schools.

“On a big, international stage they put out the question of how you conceptualize what public education should be,” said Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “From the teacher’s perspective, for the last two decades they have been on the losing end of the larger education reform effort. What the CTU managed to do is take their philosophy of what schools should look like into the public square.”

But while neither side has released the full contract, saying it’s still being finalized, details are emerging that seem to indicate teachers gained modest concessions during the strike — actually earning many of the significant wins before the strike began Sept. 10. According to contract summaries from both sides, the union’s gains during the strike were incremental improvements from offers already on the table.

Among them:

In teacher evaluations, the district agreed to create a subset within the group of teachers ranked “needs improvement” or “developing,” ensuring that not everyone falling into this category — an estimated 26 percent of teachers — would be vulnerable to layoffs.

Also, teachers rated “needs improvement” will get one year to improve, and it’ll be easier to show growth because under the agreement, they can improve either their students’ performance or their own scores in instructional abilities.

For job security, CPS agreed to guarantee that 50 percent of people hired for new positions will come from a pool of highly-rated teachers who have been laid off.

District officials have said they thought their proposal Sept. 9, the evening before the strike, addressed many of CTU’s concerns, only requiring some tweaks that could have been negotiated. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called the walkout “a strike of choice.”

But CTU attorney Robert Bloch disagreed.

“I know it looks like fine tuning on the outside, but on the inside these were critical agreements,” Bloch said. “These are things that go to the core of educational reform.”

Concessions are a part of every labor negotiation and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis acknowledged Tuesday night it would have been impossible to satisfy the demands of every union member. With the union initially demanding 30 percent raises over two years, some wanted higher annual pay raises. Others sought lower health care costs and wanted the union to push back against school closings that could number up to 120 in the coming years.

But long before the walkout, CPS had begun backing off from key reform initiatives it had been pursuing. Rod Estvan, education policy analyst with disability rights group Access Living, said the district began conceding on issues like class size after more than 90 percent of teachers authorized a strike in June.

Bruno argues that CTU listed its demands early on. He notes the district’s biggest concessions at the table came in the 24 to 72 hours before the strike deadline once Board President David Vitale entered talks, then time simply ran out.

By the evening before the strike, the district had agreed to give teachers a 3 percent raise in the first year of the contract. District officials had abandoned the idea of merit pay. They were willing to give teachers wage hikes for experience and pursuit of advanced education, although they were still debating how to restructure the compensation for mid-level teachers. And CPS says on the issue of school closings, they had agreed to give laid-off proficient teachers first dibs at jobs in the schools that were taking in displaced students, provided there were vacancies in those teachers’ positions.

But Bloch says the final manifestation on the evaluation and recall policies — negotiated during the strike — were key victories gained because of the walkout.

“To the union, that completely changed the whole tenor of how evaluations really worked,” Bloch said. “To take out student scores, a volatile indicator, as a way to lead to firing teachers was a really big accomplishment.”

He says both sides didn’t begin drafting the contract “in earnest” until after the strike began.

“Ninety percent of the contract was written post strike,” he said.

Other wins during the walkout, according to Bloch, included:

—Smokers or teachers with spouses who smoke would not be punished by paying a premium differential under the health plan.

—Probationary teachers would be laid off before tenured teachers.

—Teachers would be allowed to write their own lesson plans, instead of principals.

—Improved layoff benefits for teachers.

As teachers and school reformers wait to analyze the details of the contract language, Estvan said the union’s true victory rests in ensuring its own future.

“One of the things the strike did was show that these teachers are loyal to the concept of having a union to protect them against a big bureaucracy,” said Estvan. “That’s the message that got through. That’s the achievement.”

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