What's really at stake in the Chicago teacher's strike

What's behind the bitter school strike?

"Our members are not happy. They want to know if there is anything more they can get."

So said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Sunday evening after its House of Delegates refused to call off its strike against Chicago Public Schools children.

Like what? What more could they want? Or get?

The pay raises made public before the delegates' rejection would have cost CPS more than $300 million — a sum no one has.

Lewis said the delegates haven't had enough time to study the agreement  that was worked out by negotiators over the weekend; who knows what sneaky stuff is hidden in the fine print? (The CTU's comparison of the the CPS proposal and what the the tentative contract would provide is here.)

But you don't have to read the fine print to know that the contract is not especially to the union's advantage. The key provision isn't anything related to wage increases, teacher evaluations, teacher recall, merit pay and other items receiving most public attention.

It's this: The contract wouldn't cap the number of charter schools the CPS can open or the number of schools that the CPS can close or consolidate, said Ald. Patrick O'Connor, 40th.

This could create a more flexible and creative school system. At most, it could be truly transformational, making possible a CPS system that looks significantly different, a system in which more schools look and act like private or parochial schools — and fewer schools look and act like the traditionally union-dominated schoolhouses.

More charter schools, which are not required to employ CTU members, would reduce the union's membership, reach and influence. CPS would be freer of the many union-inspired wage, benefits, hiring, firing and work-rules straitjackets. Charters would give principals more authority while making them more accountable.

Parents' demand for more charter schools would fuel their expansion. But the big incentive for this fundamental change is the financial crisis: The system faces a $1 billion deficit next year. All other choices to balance the budget are marginal. Scores of school closings and more charters ultimately could make a major difference.

Charters cost less to operate and shuttered schools cost nothing, except for closing and minimal maintenance expenses. It is no Band-Aid solution.

I suspect that Mayor Rahm Emanuel, school negotiators and Lewis recognized this scenario from Day One. Perhaps this will give Emanuel the last laugh. As for Lewis, she gave away some of her union's future for more immediate gains, things that might have made shortsighted members happy and would help secure her leadership position.

But the teachers may recognize that by acceding to uncapped closings of traditional CPS schools and uncapped increases in charter schools, her negotiated contract ultimately risks a weaker union, thus less teacher largesse. Lewis now faces the possibility of a renegade membership, deluded into believing how tough they have it.

The House of Delegates has thrown a wrench into the works. A vote to continue the strike could turn the public against the union even more. It would expose the charade about "we're doing it for the kids." Sunday's vote already has forced and strengthened Emanuel's hand. The union faces the necessity of justifying a strike that under Illinois law may be illegal. (An explanation of the law is here.)

Who knows, public disgust at the union's increasingly obvious and raw self-interest may have a larger impact: igniting more support for school vouchers that give parents even more control by empowering them to pick their children's schools — public or private, charter or parochial. Or even fire up public support for an Illinois "trigger law" that allows parents to take over failing schools. California, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana have triggers, and others are weighing them. Depending on the state, parents can initiate action that will fire principals and teachers, set up charter schools or negotiate for major or minor changes. (There is huge public support for trigger laws.)

The movement could get a major boost from the release Sept. 28 of the film "Won't Back Down," a story about how parents stood up to the entrenched forces that stand in the way of reform. The movie's trailer already has ignited controversy, but frustrated parents fed up with the status quo will find in it encouragement and passion.

Who knows? Maybe the teachers have started something that they'll regret.

And maybe now we'll be talking about doing something that is actually "good for the kids."

This is my regular Tuesday column in the Chicago Tribune.

Leave a comment

  • Advertisement:
  • Advertisement:
  • ChicagoNow is full of win

    Welcome to ChicagoNow.

    Meet our bloggers,
    post comments, or
    pitch your blog idea.

  • Visit my new website

    I'm a freelance writer, editor and author. I can help you with a wide variety of projects. Check out my new website at www.dennisbyrne.net

  • Subscribe to The Barbershop

    Enter your email address:

    Delivered by FeedBurner

  • Dennis Byrne’s Facebook Fan Page

  • Like me on Facebook

  • Our National Debt

  • Twitter

  • Tags

  • Recent Comments

  • /Users/dennisby/Desktop/trailer.mp4
  • Advertisement: