Chicago teachers are scheduled to take to the picket lines today, following the failure of marathon negotiations this weekend with the school district over issues of pay, job security, and evaluations.
The strike, which will involve some 25,000 teachers and support staff, is the first in the city in 25 years, and it will be the largest teachers' strike since Detroit teachers marched in 2006. More than 400,000 Chicago students will be affected.
The clash comes amid a highly volatile education policy environment. Labor unions, including those representing teachers, have seen their numbers decline and their power wane under attacks from Republicans. Deeply divisive school-reform ideas pushed by both political parties have put a strong focus on teacher performance and threaten hard-won seniority and job-security rights. The financial crisis has left additional K-12 financing, the usual lubricant for advancing sweeping education policy changes, in short supply. And the unions themselves have faced difficult questions about whether to compromise and have a say in such reforms, or whether to fight them and deal with the ramifications later.
In Chicago, the nation's third-largest school district, those tensions are finally coming a head as teachers walk off the job, marking a showdown of sorts between Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former adviser for President Barack Obama, and Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union.
Emanuel has sought a longer school day and tougher teacher evaluations while simultaneously reducing the beleaguered, cash-strapped district's debts. Lewis' opposition to many of those policy changes, steadfast push for teacher job security, and willingness to take on the powerful mayor has thrust her into the national spotlight.
"The Democratic party has become much more open to reforms, whether they be charters or merit pay or teacher accountability that historically labor hasn't supported," said Timothy Knowles, the director of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute, a group that conducts research on city schools and runs a teacher-training program. "Now you have in Chicago Karen Lewis and Rahm Emanuel who are playing out that drama, with a lot of eyes on them."
Negotiations between the Chicago Public Schools and the district went
nearly until the Sept. 10 deadline. Chicago officials said at a press
conference Sunday that they had made over 20 offers to the union over
the course of negotiations. CTU officials did not return inquiries in
the days and hours leading up to the strike.