A year after legislators passed a controversial law intended to overhaul education in Illinois, it appears that Chicago still ain’t ready for reform.
Senate Bill 7 was written specifically to take power away from the teachers union and set the stage for changes pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board, most notably the longer school day and year.
It was also intended to all but eliminate the possibility of a strike. Yet now, the threat of a teachers walkout in Chicago looms larger than it has in decades.
“It is working,” insisted state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, who helped negotiate the education reform law. “It’s just not yielding the results that CPS and the mayor wanted.”
Essentially, the law has been out-maneuvered by the Chicago Teachers Union.
The law’s backers thought that requiring 75 percent of total union membership to authorize a strike would make a walkout impossible. They thought that by inserting an independent arbitrator into contract talks, a peaceful middle ground would be reached to defuse long-running battles with labor.
But the CTU upended the law by taking a strike authorization vote long before the arbitrator had ruled, and then reporting that 90 percent of its fired-up members approved a walkout. And when the nonbinding arbitrator’s report was released last week, it upbraided the district for thinking it wouldn’t have to compensate teachers for working a longer day.
“Those who wrote the legislation expected it would compel a certain set of results and undermine the will of (CTU) membership and those efforts did not succeed,” said union attorney Robert Bloch.
CPS contends the union was not following the law when it took the early strike authorization vote and when it brought the longer school day argument before the arbitrator.
The reform legislation was crafted by Oregon-based Stand for Children and Advance Illinois, an education policy group. In a 2011 videotaped speech at the Aspen Institute, a Colorado think tank, Stand for Children Chief Executive Officer Jonah Edelman talks about the lasting implications of the bill.
“The unions cannot strike in Chicago,” Edelman says. “They will never be able to muster the 75 percent threshold necessary to strike.”
He also said that “through fine print” the law ensured that the arbitrator’s recommendations “will favor what we consider to be common sense.”
Edelman did not reply to a request for comment. Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, said the law was an effort to reduce the threat of a strike so CPS and the union could address issues like the automatic raises given teachers based on experience and advanced degrees.
“The process hasn’t run its course yet,” Steans said. “Until we reach an agreement we won’t know whether it has helped or hurt. Certainly, it hasn’t played out in the way I would’ve expected or in some cases as the law intended.”
Some experts say the law is one of a series of moves that angered teachers and helped create an atmosphere in contract negotiations that arbitrator Edwin Benn, a Glencoe attorney, described in his report as “toxic.”
The recommendations in Benn’s report were largely in the union’s favor. He recommended 15 to 20 percent increases for teachers working the longer day next year and a 35.74 percent raise over four years.
He said the district shouldn’t have extended the school day if it couldn’t pay teachers comparable raises for working the extra time. Both sides have rejected the report and are back at the bargaining table.
CPS officials say that under the law, Benn should have realized the district’s financial predicament — it faces a $665 million deficit — and should not have considered the longer day.
Benn “assumed authority that the law not only does not give him but authority that the law explicitly denies him,” said CPS’ chief labor negotiator Joe Moriarty in his response to the arbitration report. “He cannot issue a recommendation on the impact on compensation for the (longer school day and longer school year).”
A possible strike is now less than a month away. The union remains determined not to let the state reform law get in its way.
CPS and Emanuel “just wanted to take away our ability to stop them from doing anything they want to do,” said CTU President Karen Lewis last week. “So let’s get out of Burger King mode where they think they can have it their way and let’s work together to actually put bones to this contract.”
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