It is becoming more and more apparent that the big items of contention between the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union were the rehiring of laid-off teachers and teacher evaluations. While claiming that other issues remained unresolved, union officials had said numerous times that they would not agree to a contract without getting the district to make concessions on those two subjects. While both parties had been pessimistic about the possibilities for a settlement for the first several days, once a "breakthrough" had been made on evaluations the tune changed quickly; all involved have since expressed the opinion that they should be able to sign a contract quickly, perhaps as early as tonight.
The problem is that if these were really the two main issues the strike violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. Rehiring of laid-off teachers is an issue that a union may raise, but cannot strike over. Teacher evaluation is something that the two sides should not have been bargaining over at all.
Under the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act certain subjects may be bargained at the discretion of CPS. Among them are layoffs, reductions in force, and class staffing and assignment. These same subjects may not serve as the grounds for a strike; they are to be referred to fact-finding instead. That takes care of the layoff and rehiring matter.
The issue of teacher evaluations is covered by the Performance Evaluation Reform Act of 2010. PERA requires that districts set up a teacher evaluation process that is significantly based on measurements of student performance. PERA sets up a process for working out the details of these performance evaluations, including joint committees with union involvement. But what matters most is that in Chicago at least, the process is separate from regular collective bargaining, and if the parties cannot agree on an evaluation plan, the district can implement its last best offer unilaterally. While it doesn't say so explicitly, PERA effectively takes evaluations out of regular collective bargaining -there's nothing left to bargain about.
Rahm Emanuel was on pretty solid legal ground when he said that a strike could be called legally over the two issues of recalling laid-off teachers and teacher evaluations. But he mayor has set aside his concerns about the law in order to strike a deal.
That deal will be a bad one for children. The evaluation law in particular was meant to help students. By ensuring that school districts could identify both the best and the worst teachers, PERA made it possible for principals and superintendents to reward effective teaching and move inept teachers out of the classroom. PERA had the potential to improve teaching and ensure that every classroom had a capable teacher in front of it.
What happened instead is that CTU used their bargaining clout to subvert state law. They threw demand after demand - 19 percent raises, air conditioning, more nurses and social services - in the direction of a school district that is basically broke. The union made enough economic demands that the district had to negotiate on things it should not have negotiated, and they eventually forced the district to water down evaluations.
CTU was helped by a collective bargaining law that makes them the monopoly provider of teaching staff for the district, and by a collective bargaining process that operates mostly in the shadows - bargaining sessions are exempt from the open meetings act, and except for the contract itself, documents generated during bargaining sessions are exempt from FOIA. Without the public or media in the room it was impossible to know for sure whether CTU's representatives were bargaining in good faith themselves or manipulating the process to interfere with the teacher evaluation process called for by state law.
Finally CTU benefits from close to $30 million in annual revenue, much of that guaranteed by Chicago Public Schools themselves in the form of membership dues and agency fees. Membership dues for CTU have been as high as $1,000 a year for every one of over 25,000 teachers. And the new contract will almost certainly continue the flow of money to union officials who have built one of the most powerful political and lobbying groups in Chicago. As talks dragged on it must have become harder and harder for the Mayor to resist the union's money and clout.
What has basically happened is that the bargaining law has given Karen Lewis and the CTU the ability to practically veto a state law meant to improve teaching, and they have exercised that veto. This is something that Chicagoans should not tolerate, especially if they care about the children.