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Chicago Teachers Strike Resolution Imminent as Emanuel Bends

Everyone continues to expect a conclusion to the Chicago teachers strike today. “Number crunching” delayed an announcement last night, but CTU President Karen Lewis still scheduled a meeting with the union’s House of Delegates at 2pm CT today, where they could give preliminary approval to any deal. But labor will rally at 12pm CT in the city, perhaps a final hurrah for the weeklong strike.

Reports indicate that the teacher evaluation piece has been agreed to and that the outstanding issue concerned the recall of teachers laid off from closed schools. Chicago Public Schools has outlined plans to close between 80-120 low-performing or sparsely enrolled schools over the next few years, and teachers at those schools want to be in line for jobs at the consolidated locations.

It’s a bit unusual that such a contentious and bitter strike, with charges of a lack of respect and the like, could get wrapped up so quickly. But the upcoming election could provide a rationale.

According to both political and education officials, Emanuel is under pressure to resolve the standoff with the Chicago Teachers Union in a timely matter. Two sources close to negotiations tell HuffPost that the Obama campaign is concerned a prolonged strike would depress voter enthusiasm among teachers — a key Democratic constituency — in the weeks leading up to the election. Already, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has used the strike to try to drive a wedge between the education reform community (in this case, personified by Emanuel) and the Obama White House. Seeing an opening, the Romney campaign announced the creation of “National Educators for Romney” on Thursday evening.

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, has worked with Emanuel for years and is closely involved in the negotiations. Asked if he was caving under the pressure, she told HuffPost, “It’s not a cave — everyone is working towards a settlement.”

One close observer of the process finds that the city has moved closer to the union’s position. And given the other factors, that makes sense. The public supports the strikers. The election does loom in the background. Emanuel did overplay his hand. The union was skillful in presenting their full argument to the public in Chicago about how this was not about salaries but better schools. The views behind this op-ed have compelled the public to agree.

Teaching is a complex task, requiring a subtle weave of intellectual ideas, interpersonal dynamics, and emotional investment. Negotiating a new teachers’ contract is no less complex: we all feel passionately about educating our kids. But to get anywhere, we need to acknowledge the underlying facts.

Teachers in Chicago are paid well initially, but face rising financial incentives to move to the suburbs as they gain experience and proficiency. No currently-existing “value added” evaluation system yields consistent, fair, educationally sound results. And firing bad teachers won’t magically create better ones to take their jobs.

To make progress on these issues, we have to figure out a way to make teaching in the city economically viable over the long-term; to evaluate teachers in a way that is consistent and reasonable, and that makes good sense educationally; and to help struggling teachers improve their practice. Because at base, we all want the same thing: classes full of students eager to be learning from their excellent, passionate teachers.

The only tool the union had left to reach these goals was to strike, which is by definition inconvenient and disruptive. It forced the city to pay attention. And we’ll see the final product, but it appears to be working. And that’s good news for progressive politics in general, as well as the Chicago schools in particular.

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David Dayen

David Dayen