Chicago Kids Are Back In School, But Questions About Education Reform and Unions Remain

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September 20, 2012 ‐ By

Kids head back to school after the end of the Chicago teachers strike. Image: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

Students and teachers went back to class yesterday, ending a seven-day teachers strike that caught nationwide attention for the education and labor issues it brought to the fore. Now, both sides have to deal with the cost of the agreement that they’ve agreed to.

“Pay raises and hiring nearly 500 new teachers to implement the longer school day has a higher price tag — as high as $295 million — that some say could lead to higher property taxes,” reports NBC News in Chicago. There could be tax hikes on things like cigarettes. Teachers are getting a three percent raise in the first year and a two percent raise each of the two following years. There’s also an option for the fourth year.

The deal also calls for teacher evaluations that take standardized tests into account by 30 percent, a change to the “last in, first out” rule for layoffs and monitoring of class size. A more comprehensive list is available here, though the full contract hasn’t been released.

However, BusinessWeek reports that there could be trouble in the not-so-distant future.

“Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public Schools system he runs face a projected $1 billion deficit next year and the prospect of scores of school closings. The union peace they obtained may be short-lived because other pressures — including at least $338 million in pension payments due in 2014 — are squeezing the budget,” this article says.

In other words, the overarching financial issues plaguing the city and the public education system could encroach on any agreement the two sides have come to. This is important when you think of the financial state of cities and public education systems across the country. Nationwide, cities large and small are faced with economic crunches that threaten all kinds of local processes, like pensions. Moreover, the move towards charter schools and other educational alternatives is changing the face of public education.

And one expert, Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago, tells The Chicago Tribune that it’s a step in the direction towards the education reform that teacher’s support.

“What the CTU managed to do is take their philosophy of what schools should look like into the public square,” he said.

Separately, we were curious to learn more about Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president who took on Mayor Emanuel. Turns out she’s a 59-year-old Chicago public school grad who went on to Dartmouth and became a chemistry teacher. She’s led the CTU for two years and has proven to be a worthy adversary to the Mayor and an excellent adovcate for teachers. To learn more about her, read this story.
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