Contract Talks With Chicago, Unions Draw National Attention

The high profile of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t the only reason why the ongoing conflict between the Chicago Public Schools and the Illinois teachers union is playing out on the national stage. Also at stake are all education reform efforts ongoing in localities that, like Chicago, are largely democratic and labor-friendly.

Illinois in general, and Chicago in particular, is setting up to be a test case for the possible traction education reform groups can gain in jurisdictions not traditionally friendly to the private-sector inspired changes like charter schools and voucher programs. It’s no surprise that leading the charge this time around is the Democrats for Education Reform, which is working to rally lawmakers to support changes that they’ve typically been wary about, and at the same time get parents on board as well.

Helping in the effort is the current leadership of the CPS which is battling the teachers union in an effort to bring charter schools to the city and, at the same time, introduce radical teacher tenure reforms. Although current polling indicates that parents, especially those with children attending CPS schools, are still holding with their support for the union, it’s hard to ignore the mass of opposition organized against them.

Although, the progress of reform efforts in Chicago might seem downright stagnant, compared to efforts in other states, the level of interest is higher due to the fact that one of its loudest proponents, Mayor Emmanuel, was formerly the chief of staff for President Obama, who is considered to be, at best, lukewarm on the issue of school choice. Thus, Emanuel’s zeal for education reform is one of the most public indications of an ideological split between him and his former boss.

“The mayor’s candid disdain for the current teacher union contracts is attractive to most reformers, and they equate tough talk with tough action,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform.

“He’s been clear that notions like ironclad tenure and seniority should not be a proxy for a teacher’s performance,” Allen said. “Obviously the unions around the country don’t want to believe one of their own has turned on them and might actually challenge their power.”

At the same time, the city’s teachers union can’t be feeling entirely secure in the degree of support offered by the parents and the city’s voters, especially if they’re planning to go ahead with the threatened strike as the contract negotiations continue to stall. The union took first steps towards the strike action last week when it requested a three-member panel to review contract proposals from the union and the city.

The next step, the strike authorization vote, is scheduled for next week. Although the leadership says that even if the vote passes, that doesn’t mean that teachers will immediately walk off the job, the new requirement that 75% of the membership must approve the strike action, means that the union are looking to allow a longer time-frame in order to get the required number of affirmative votes.