Chicago School Strike Ends, but Not the Fight

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel and teachers stand down, the future of public education is still up for grabs.

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In reality, the arithmetic is worse than the sum of their fears. Chicago's public schools have gotten only marginally better since 25 years ago, when President Ronald Reagan's education secretary, William J. Bennett, declared them "the worst in the nation" and advised parents to send their children to private schools.

Many Chicagoans who could afford it took Bennett's advice; others who thought that was too steep a price simply hightailed it to the suburbs. Today, 87 percent of the students in Chicago's public schools come from low-income families. Forty-four percent of the system's 350,000 students are Latino, 42 percent black and 8 percent are white. Only 61 percent of those who enter the city's public high schools graduate. A 2006 study, conducted when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was then CEO of Chicago Public Schools, reported that for every 100 CPS freshmen, only six would get a four-year college degree (pdf). For black boys that number was only three.

With numbers like that, it's no small wonder that a 2004 report showed that 39 percent of Chicago's public school teachers send their children to private schools -- and that Mayor Emanuel does the same; his three children attend the University of Chicago's Lab School.

The mayor and that hefty percentage of the city's teachers aren't the only parents eager to educate their children elsewhere. Chicago's public charter schools currently enroll about 12 percent of the city's students -- and that percentage is growing.

Emanuel would like to see more students lured away from traditional public schools into charters, which are virtually union-free and free to hire much younger teachers at much lower salaries -- about $15,000 to $30,000 less than the average CPS union teacher salary of $75,000 per year.

This July, as part of his much-heralded school reform effort, the mayor, while cutting a promised 4 percent raise for the teachers in half, muscled the union into extending Chicago's school day to seven-and-a-half hours from seven hours at most high schools and to seven hours from five hours and 45 minutes at elementary schools. The school year was lengthened to 180 days from 170.

During this process, while Emanuel was crowing about his successful reforms, unions from coast to coast heard echoes of their nemesis, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Lewis and her union became a sign of things to come. If Emanuel beat them down on every count, other big cities were sure to take notice and take a similar course. If the CTU could get the tough-talking Emanuel to back down, it would be a different story.

It's too early to tell just how different the narrative will be. There were no winners -- except for the children, everyone was quick to say.

The mayor called the settlement, which includes new teacher evaluations and recall rights for laid-off teachers, "an honest compromise" in his prepared statement, with this explanation: "In past negotiations, taxpayers paid more but our kids got less -- this time, our taxpayers are paying less and our kids are getting more. Because of past contracts, teachers and principals had to make false choices about where they spent their time because there was so little of it. This contract is a break with past practices and brings a fundamental change that benefits our children."

CTU President Lewis responded during her Q-and-A session: "The key is we are trying to have people understand that when people come together to deal with problems of education, the people that are actually working in schools need to be heard. And I think this has been an opportunity for people across the nation to have their voice heard."