Mayor Rahm Emanuel secured an extension of Chicago’s school day and empowered principals to hire the teachers they want. Teachers were able to soften a new evaluation process and win some job protections.
As students returned to the classroom Sept. 19 after a seven-day teachers strike, both sides found reasons to celebrate victory. But neither the school-reform movement nor organized labor achieved the decisive breakthrough it had sought. And whether the implications extend beyond Chicago might depend on the next case having a similar cast of characters and political pressures.
Unions hoped the walkout would prove they were still relevant, and some education reform groups were disappointed with the city’s concessions.
At times, the contract talks seemed overshadowed by personalities, with the mayor and union leaders occasionally trading insults and questioning each other’s motives.
Still, everyone involved in the dispute emerged with an achievement to trumpet: Teachers said the strike sparked an important national conversation about school reform. Union activists said it helped inspire public employee unions that have been losing ground. Emanuel declared it a boon for students trapped in failing schools.
The president of the American Federation of Teachers said the strike showed that teachers want a voice in improving schools rather than shouldering the blame for those who are failing.
“The bottom line is … you had teachers standing up for what they need to teach and what students need to learn,” Randi Weingarten said, citing concerns about school closings, standardized tests, and a lack of classroom resources that are common across the U.S.
But in lots of places, the circumstances that led to Chicago’s walkout don’t apply. For one thing, many states forbid strikes by teachers and other public-employee unions. Some teachers unions and school districts have been able to work collaboratively to achieve changes, in sharp contrast to the clash in Chicago, a union-built town where organized labor still wields considerable power but new mayor is seeking more control over education.
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“I think a lot of what went on to a certain extent is peculiar to Chicago,” said Martin Malin, director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at the Kent College of Law in Chicago.
Thomas Hatch, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said the strike focused attention on teacher evaluations and fears of closing neighborhood schools. But he agreed that some factors, such as the combative personalities, are unlikely to affect other districts.
A report that characterized the relationship between the teachers union and Emanuel as “toxic” was on point, Malin said. Now that a deal has been reached, the challenge for both parties “is to seize that and work on rally transforming the relationship.”
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