By KAYLEE LAZZARO
After 10 months of discussion, contract negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago School Board broke down on Sept. 9 when they failed to come to an agreement regarding compensation, benefits, and a new teacher evaluation system based on student test scores. Public school teachers find themselves fighting similar battles with school boards and local governments across the country, in states like New Jersey.
Chicago’s nearly 30,000 teachers returned to the classroom Sept. 19 when the CTU settled for a 17.6 percent average raise over four years and the Chicago School Board relented on a merit pay program that would have significantly emphasized student test scores. Student test scores will still impact teacher evaluations, as mandated by Illinois state law; however, the scores will count for no more than 30 percent of evaluations instead of the 45 percent initially pursued by the district.
The strike, the first in 25 years in the nation’s third largest school system, affected nearly 700 schools and 400,000 students. The size and proximity of the strike to the presidential election made national headlines, but the issues at stake were emblematic of the larger conflict over education reform being fought in states like New Jersey.
Public school teacher Peter Lazzaro, 48, said the rights, benefits, and interests of New Jersey Education Association members have been compromised by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s education agenda for the past three years.
“I completely relate to the teachers in Chicago,” Lazzaro said. “We had some of the same issues and conflicts before the tenure reform bill was passed in August. And Christie’s still pushing for new evaluations that are based half on test scores.”
The NJEA, the largest teachers union in the state, has been at odds with the Republican Christie since he took office in 2010. In 2012 alone, Christie and NJEA officials have traded barbs over collective bargaining, membership fees, and, most recently, tenure reform.
On Aug. 6, Christie signed a tenure reform bill into law with the support of the NJEA. An earlier version of the legislation, S-1455, was contested by the NJEA for eliminating due process rights by not allowing teachers to contest the loss of their tenure or their job as a result of poor evaluations.
Ultimately, the bill was modified and both sides supported the new tenure law. The law lengthens the time to acquire tenure from three to four years but maintains the due process protections that, according to the NJEA, shield teachers from political interference.
According to NJEA President Barbara Keshishian, up next is teacher evaluation reform.
“We were happy to work with Senator Ruiz, Assemblyman Diegnan, Commissioner Cerf, and others on this tenure law, and now we need to focus on the evaluation process, since that will be the basis for any dismissal decisions,” Keshishian said.
Like their NJEA counterparts, the CTU does not believe the effectiveness and value of a teacher can be measured through standardized tests.
“This is no way to measure the effectiveness of an educator,” CTU President Karen GJ Lewis said. “Further, there are too many factors beyond our control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control.”
Nonetheless, there has been a push on both national and local levels to find more effective ways to evaluate teacher performance. According to a report by Bellwether Education Partners, in the last three years “more than 20 states passed legislation designed to address educator effectiveness by mandating annual evaluations.” CTU board member Jay Rehark called this trend “data-driven madness.”
In both Illinois and New Jersey, the conflict between the unions and prominent local politicians has turned personal.
“I will not stand by while the children of Chicago are played as pawns in an internal dispute within a union,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “This was a strike of choice and is now a delay of choice that is wrong for our children.”
On Sept. 17, Emanuel filed an injunction against the union, arguing that, since the strike “is over issues that are deemed by state law to be non-strikable” and “endangers the health and safety of our children,” it is illegal.
Union spokesperson Stephanie Gadlin called Emanuel’s comments “bullying behavior.”
Similar rhetoric has been used in public comments made by Christie and NJEA leadership. In an interview with ABC’s “World News” host Diane Sawyer on April 6, 2011, Christie called the NJEA a “group of political thugs.” NJEA spokespeople, including Executive Director Vincent E. Giordano, have repeatedly called Christie a bully.
To Lazzaro, however, the interests of teachers and students are aligned, and the unions are simply making sure teachers are heard and respected.
“Teachers are never going to get the raises that the private industry gets, the bonuses or the benefits,” Lazzaro said. “But we have other benefits – security and stability with growth. That’s the tradeoff. And we have to protect that, even in tough economic times,” he added.