Could the Chicago Teachers Strike Spread? Not Likely

A change in union leadership preceded Chicago's teacher strike, unlike other cities where labor disputes simmer.
by | September 12, 2012 AT 4:00 PM

For full coverage of Chicago's teacher strike, click here.

All education eyes are on Chicago this week, where the public school teachers are on strike for a second consecutive day. While no end is in sight to the rift between the teachers union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, there is a question bubbling under the surface in the minds of many: Could this happen elsewhere?

Not likely, according to analysts in other major cities where teachers unions have clashed with city leadership. Although Chicago's teachers are contesting issues with broader national implications, such as the use of data to evaluate performance, it could be a change in union leadership that has led to the showdown in the Windy City.

Gotham Schools, a widely respected news site that focuses on New York City schools, noted that Chicago's union saw a new regime sweep into power in 2010. Formerly a minority party, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) has set firm goals of resisting certain education reforms, particularly those endorsed by Emanuel and the Obama administration, whereas national union leadership has expressed some willingness to work with policymakers.

“What drives school reform is a singular focus on profit,” said Karen Lewis, the head of CORE in Chicago, during her acceptance speech last year. She told city leadership: “You’ve met your match.”

Emanuel has proposed basing 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation on student performance, a strategy opposed by CORE. On a national scale, the White House's Race To The Top grant program has urged states to factor student test scores into teacher reviews. But when Emanuel's office offered "joint implementation" and flexibillity for the new teacher evaluations, the union still said no.

Teacher evaluations have also been a sticking point between New York's teachers union and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office, Gotham Schools observed, but the city is missing some of the other variables that would make a strike more likely. For starters, the union leadership has stayed in tact, despite some surging of factions that are similar to Chicago's CORE. And while the city and union haven't reached a final agreement on including test scores in teacher evaluations, there has been a general consensus that they would have a place in the new system.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the city's teachers union have also sparred over new evaluations that include test scores. The issue went to court this summer when a group that represents parents and reform advocates sued the district for not including student performance in its evaluations, saying it violated state law. They were supported by Villaraigosa.

A judge ruled in the group's favor in June, according to the Los Angeles Times. In the meantime, about 100 schools and 700 teachers are participating in a voluntary program that includes test scores in teacher evaluations. The teachers union has also opposed that program, according to the Times, and its own evaluation system would use student performance to target areas that need to be improved, but not for individual teacher evaluations.

But the main difference between Chicago and Los Angeles could be one of structure, said Southern California Public Radio's education reporter Adolfo Guzman Lopez in a segment on the Chicago strike. Chicago's board and superintendent are appointed by the mayor, while the Los Angeles board is elected and then appoints a superintendent. That allows both sides, the mayor and the union, to push for their supporters to be placed on the board through the ballot box.

“It certainly gives the factions a seat at the table within the school district," Lopez said. "You could argue that it makes for smoother negotiations.”

While conditions don't seem ripe for the Chicago teachers strike to spread, statements from national union leadership serve as a reminder that many teachers are unsatisfied with the education reform movement in the United States and feel marginalized by its portrayal of teachers. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, expressed solidarity with the Chicago teachers union in a Monday statement.

"The American Federation of Teachers and our members across the country stand firmly with the CTU, and we will support its members in their efforts to secure a fair contract that will enable them to give their students the best opportunities," Weingarten said. "CTU members -- the women and men who spend every day with Chicago's children -- want to have their voice and experience respected and valued. They want to be treated as equal partners in making sure every student in Chicago succeeds."

UPDATE: The Boston Globe reported Wednesday morning that the Boston city schools and teachers union, which have been negotiating a new contract for more than two years, have reached a tentative agreement that includes student test scores to evaluate performance. Teachers whose students perform poorly on standardized tests could be ineligible for a pay raise and be terminated more quickly than in the past.