Strike looms despite legislation
Illinois' most powerful elected officials — Pat Quinn, Mike Madigan and Rahm Emanuel — were determined to stop a teachers' strike in Chicago.
Barring a last-minute change of circumstances, Chicago school teachers are scheduled to go on strike Monday, leaving more than 300,000 students at loose ends while negotiators for the union and school system try to reach agreement on a new contract.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Indeed, Gov. Pat Quinn, lawmakers from both parties and representatives of various education-related groups devoted hundreds of hours in 2010-11 to hammering out legislation that was designed to head off teacher strikes in Illinois, particularly in Chicago. So far, the legislation is failing to have that effect in the state's largest city.
It's a different story throughout the rest of the state, where walkouts have been mostly a non-issue. There was a brief strike earlier this year in Rockford and possible strikes loom in Lake Forest on Sept. 12 and Evergreen Park on Sept. 21.
Gov. Quinn signed the so-called education reform legislation in June 2011 to considerable fanfare.
It barred a strike in the Chicago schools system unless 75 percent of the teachers' union members voted to support it. Outside Chicago, the 75 percent rule does not apply.
But union leaders in Chicago didn't wait until negotiations reached an impasse before polling union members. Instead, they front-loaded the vote, receiving 90 percent support from members and using that authorization as a club in the face of Monday's deadline.
Whatever happens in Chicago, it does not mean that the reform package adopted by the General Assembly is a failure. It only means, so far at least, that the effort to head off a strike in Chicago fell short of expectations.
Nonetheless, Juan Jose Gonzalez of Stand For Children said the legislation has had an effect on negotiations because the new law requires both management and labor to disclose details of the process that have allowed the public to better understand what is happening.
"The whole process is open (to the parents)," said Gonzalez, who contends the disclosures have allowed parents to put pressure on both sides to be reasonable.
He said that parents can hold Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel accountable if they perceive him to be intransigent, while also pressuring teachers to be reasonable in their demands. (One key difference, however, is that Emanuel is elected while teachers' union officials are accountable only to their members.)
The Chicago school district has offered teachers a four-year contract with 2 percent salary increases each year. It apparently has abandoned a merit-pay proposal that the union vehemently opposed.
That transparency has also been present in Evergreen Park and Lake Forest, where final offers are to be posted on the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board website for public inspection.
Meanwhile, other provisions in the legislation remain in place, and they should, if properly implemented, pave the way for an improved educational product.
The legislation was designed to make it easier to dismiss poorly performing teachers, allow school districts to base teacher layoffs on ability rather than in length of tenure, toughen up the teacher evaluation process and establish more rigid requirements for the granting of tenure.
All eyes now, however, are focused on Chicago, which operates 675 schools. The district has announced that 144 schools will be open Monday to provide a safe haven for students in the unfortunate event that teachers follow through on their pledge to walk out.