Striking teachers in Chicago forged a tentative agreement with Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Friday, ending a five-day walkout over disputes about public education reform that have reverberated around the country.
The union was able to win some ground on two major issues — how teachers should be evaluated and whether teachers laid off when a school closes had an automatic right to job openings in other schools.
The strike attracted national attention because the battle was over education reforms that mirrored conflicts taking place around the country and also because Emanuel, a prominent Democrat and President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, was brawling with organized labor, a key constituency that Democrats need in the coming presidential election.
The fight exposed a rift within the Democratic Party over the direction of school reform. Democratic mayors in a growing number of cities, including Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles and Cory Booker in Newark, have pressed for tougher teacher evaluations and an end to tenure that are part of many union contracts. On the other side are labor leaders and others convinced that the reforms are union-busting by another name.
While Obama has maintained close ties to teachers, he has promoted policies many of them dislike through his Race to the Top grants, which reward states for evaluating teachers in part by how well their students perform on standardized tests.
Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who once ran the Chicago public schools, have said little publicly about the strike.
Most observers said Friday that the strike will not damage Obama or his relationship with unions.
“No runs, no hits, no errors,” said Steve Rosenthal, a longtime union organizer who is active in Democratic politics. “In the scheme of things, it’s over. When was the last time any labor dispute other than [the air traffic controllers] with [President Ronald] Reagan in ‘81 or baseball in ‘94 had any type of impact on the nation?”
The strike will not dim support for Obama on the part of labor, he said. “The unions recognize the clear differences between the Obama administration and [Mitt] Romney and the Republicans, who have denigrated unions and made them whipping posts,” he said.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the parent union, played down the conflict over evaluations and job rights and said the teachers in Chicago went on strike because they were at a breaking point over budget cuts, crumbling buildings and ballooning class sizes, among other problems.
“In Washington and New York and the further you get from Chicago, people didn’t get this,” Weingarten said. “This was about the heart and soul of public education and whether educators have the tools to do their work. It’s not about whether or not we want changes in public education; it’s about whether we have the tools to educate kids.”
She said there would be no lingering effect on the unions and their support for Obama. “We’ve had some concerns with some of the policies of the Obama administration that are too fixated on test scores, but we are all together and we’ll be working from shore to shore to get Barack Obama and Joe Biden reelected.”
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, has said his 3 million members are more actively engaged on behalf of Obama now than they were at this point in the 2008 campaign.
The details of the agreement between the Chicago Teachers Union and the school district were still being worked out Friday. The union had scheduled a vote for Sunday for its 700-member House of Delegates that would enable the 2,600 striking teachers and paraprofessionals to return to classrooms on Monday. The full union would then be asked to finalize the deal sometime after that.
The union agreed that the school system could tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, but the school administration promised that test scores would play a smaller role than it initially sought. In addition, the union won assurances that if a teacher is laid off because of a school closing, the teacher will get preference in rehiring as long as he or she has been deemed effective. But principals would retain freedom to choose their teachers, according to sources close to the negotiations.
“This tentative framework is an honest and principled compromise that is about who we all work for: our students,” Emanuel said in a prepared statement Friday. “Now, our most important work continues: providing every child in every community of Chicago an education to match their potential.”
Robert Bruno, a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois, said “this will be properly understood as a very favorable agreement to the union.” He said the union did a “masterful job” of mobilizing its members, making its case to the public and winning the outcome it sought. As a result, he said, the union is stronger and is in a better position to fight future battles, such as those looming over likely school closings in Chicago. Parents of the 400,000 children in Chicago, the third-largest school district in the nation, were relieved to hear of the deal, which had caused a child-care scramble for many families.
The Chicago strike will probably influence other conflicts nationwide regarding school reform, Bruno said.
“For the first time, a teachers union didn’t just surrender to the onslaught of what passes for education reform and decided to do something else,” he said. “So it might embolden other unions around the country. But people are going to be looking at how Chicago Public Schools were able to use state law to get what it needed. So people are going to look at what both sides did here.”