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Chicago's Longer School Day: Much-Needed Reform Or Political Cynicism?

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When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced last year that he would begin a campaign toward his current gig, it was only a matter of weeks before he introduced his "longer school day" proposal. The issue didn't raise many eyebrows during the campaign, but in recent months it has led to near-daily blows between the Chicago Teachers Union, the school board and the Emanuel administration.

As the days go by, the blows strike lower and the stakes move higher. Last week the teachers union filed an unfair labor lawsuit against the mayor-appointed Chicago Board of Education. The suit claims that CPS has attempted to bribe and coerce schools into approving the longer school day pilot program--circumventing their existing contract by signing up for the longer work day.

Since CPS teachers were denied their contractually-obligated 4 percent raises -- worth an estimated $100 million -- earlier this year under the pretense that the system was too broke to afford them, many have wondered how the city is paying for pilot program incentives -- which could cost as much as $30 million, depending on how many schools join.

Both sides have had their say in the press, with the union accusing the board and the mayor of ignoring their proposals and turning the school debate into a PR battle and longer day supporters accusing the union of being unwilling to budge. And last week, CTU president Karen Lewis told reporters Emanuel pointed his finger toward her and yelled "F--- you, Lewis" after the two had discussed the longer school day in his office.

But putting aside questions of who said what in the ongoing war of words between the union, school administrators and Emanuel, what is the longer school day battle really about? And what will the extra 90 minutes accomplish? Once again, the jury seems to be out.

A NUMBERS GAME

First, there are the teachers at nine CPS elementary schools, as of Friday, who have voted to waive their contracts for the present school year and start working longer days immediately. In return, the schools receive a lump sum of discretionary funding -- either $150,000 or $75,000 depending on how soon the change is implemented -- while their teachers each receive a one-time payment similar to 2 percent of their district's average salary.

But on the flip side, "about 20" CPS schools have voted, thus far, to uphold the existing contract and not extend their instructional day this year, according to CTU press secretary Stephanie Gadlin. On Tuesday, Gadlin told the Huffington Post, Hendricks Elementary Community Academy in the city's Canaryville neighborhood voted unanimously against extending the school day this year. An AP report Friday disclosed that two more schools -- Colemon Elementary on the city's South Side and Burnham Elementary on the West Side -- voted against the day.

When the point was raised by NBC Chicago to CPS, a spokeswoman for the mayor's office replied that "there have been no schools to vote no."

"Of course CPS and the board won't tell you all the story of the scores of schools that have said 'no' to this because that is not the story that they want to tell," Gadlin said. "They want to continue using the press as their publicist and, so far, they're doing a great job of that."

Gadlin claims that the mayor's office and CPS press team is "trickling out" news of elementary schools breaking from the union to help further their preferred story line. Because the schools that have turned down the waiver have reportedly voted to do so during an "informal" vote before the waiver is officially extended, CPS is technically correct in their claim of a blemish-free school voting record on the issue.

"If a barrage of schools were signing up for the longer day, we would hear about more than one a day," she continued.

The union publicly mentioned between 20 and 30 schools rejecting the pilot program, but Carroll said some schools have asked the union to stop naming them as pilot program rejectors.

"There are schools on [the CTU's] list [of schools voting 'no' to the longer day] that have no business being there," she said.

Further, Carroll said, "at the end of the day, the only vote that matters is a waiver vote. Until a waiver vote happens, no other formal, informal poll or snapshot in time matters."

As for where the pilot program funding is coming from, Carroll said if 50 schools sign up by January, the incentives will cost the system an estimated $7 million -- much less than the $100 million price tag that the Board of Ed-rejected teacher raises carried.

"A $7 million investment in return for helping our children who are in dire need of getting more time in the classroom with their teachers is well worth those dollars," Carroll added, "And CEO Brizard is willing to make some additional, painful cuts in our budget in order to fund that investment in our students.

"We are willing to support the teachers and schools who are willing to add more time to the day in any way necessary to make that happen."

HOW SOON IS NOW?

At the heart of the ongoing longer school day debate, regardless of which schools are voting which way on the waiver offer, is what benefit an hour-and-a-half-longer school day will ultimately offer to the system's students -- not to mention what educational content those 90 minutes would include.

Carroll reiterated Thursday that CPS "believes very strongly, and this is backed by mounds of research, that a longer school day can provide districts with the tools to help students be successful in the classroom."

Stand For Children, the non-profit advocacy group which was the driving force behind Senate Bill 7, legislation passed earlier this year which paved the way to a number of educational reforms across Illinois including Emanuel's long-promised longer school day, agrees.

Mary Anderson, Stand For Children's executive director, told The Huffington Post her organization was "very excited" to see the handful-plus-one of CPS schools that have agreed to the longer day pilot program. She feels the longer day will allow for more enrichment programs, plus longer meal periods, recess time and time allowing for teacher intervention with students who may be struggling in a core academic area like math or reading.

"This is what parents want and what is in the best interests of children," Anderson said. "The groundswell of support indicates that they want it to happen and they want it to happen now. I hope that more schools will sign on."

And while Anderson understands the CTU's concerns over how the extra instructional time will be allocated, she said that she felt "we need to get away from the noise and focus on what's best for the students" in the midst of the ongoing squabbles. A CPS-led task force, which the CTU's Lewis declined to be a part of, is currently at work designing a blueprint for the new, longer school day.

"At the end of the day, the adults have to figure this out because thousands of CPS students are being left behind and that's simply unacceptable," Anderson added.

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, shares Anderson's frustrations with student performance in the city's struggling school system and called the union's concerns over instructional content during the additional time as a "smoke screen."

"Clearly [a longer day] is a step in the right direction," Broy told the Huffington Post. "I don't think it's easy to defend the length of the school day we have and we should have fixed it 10 years ago."

He challenged the union to "come forward with ways to do this constructively" and described a recent event he attended in support of the longer day as, ultimately, "the rally to be average." Even with the extra 90 minutes, Broy says, CPS non-charter schools will still register among the national average instructional time. School days at the charter schools in his system are nearly two hours longer than Chicago Public Schools and his network's leadership has publicly applauded Emanuel's proposal.

"I'm not saying the union isn't right to have some concerns about implementation, but I'm suggesting that the time to fix the problem is now," he added. "The longer school day is a necessary precondition to reform. I'm glad to see Rahm's fighting for it because it's something that really matters."

POLITICS AT ITS WORST OR REFORM AT ITS BEST?

Recent analyses of instructional day length's correlation with learning outcomes have lent credence to the CTU's call for a "better school day," rather than, more simply, a longer one.

As the Chicago Tribune reported Tuesday, some high-performing school districts in affluent Chicago suburbs -- including Glen Ellyn, Elmhurst and Elgin -- have instructional days on par with those non-charter schools within city limits.

Influential SmallTalk education blogger, author and educator Mike Klonsky said the Tribune's analysis is in line with his belief that school performance -- often tied to students' test scores -- is "a measure of poverty, not one's going on in the classroom."

Klonsky described Emanuel's push for the longer school day as "cynical" and "politically-driven."

"What you're seeing is that, under mayoral control, a two-tiered school system is under development [in Chicago]: one for the elite, middle-class kids and another system for the poor; one filled with enrichment programs and things like that and the other has a test-and-punishment curriculum," Klonsky said.

Klonsky further described CPS's offering of mysteriously-funded waivers to longer day pilot schools as "improper and probably illegal."

"In order to push through this politically-geared agenda for the mayor, a lot of damage is being done and a lot of irresponsible kind of funding plans are being put into practice," Klonsky said. "I think the union is right, but the question is what will happen next? "It's a mystery and Rahm has no plan."

COMPROMISE AHEAD?

As for what happens next, all parties involved appear to be on the same page about one thing: The longer school day will be the order of the day systemwide in CPS schools beginning with the 2012-2013 academic year, after the existing teacher contract expires.

Until then, CPS is continuing their rallying cry for the lengthened day. Carroll said she expected more schools to join the pilot program in the coming days and weeks.

"Our students are struggling … and it's incumbent upon us, as adults, to come together and work out a solution," Carroll said. "Why wait a year from now and shortchange kids for a year if their teachers at their schools want to do it today and want to give their students that opportunity to get a leg up to be successful?"

As for the union, Gadlin said she hopes CPS will "come to its senses and stop these illegal elections and this union-busting campaign they're engaging in." The union's priorities, she said, remain to plan for improved day-to-day curriculum as part of the inevitable longer day coming to CPS schools -- and better compensation for the teachers themselves. She also said a majority of Chicagoans support the union's plan, citing a recent poll conducted by Lake Research Partners.

"Our call for a better school day is not far off from what people want for their students: a world-class education," Gadlin said. "We don't understand the urgency to do this right now. Rahm has already decreed that a longer school year is coming to Chicago so, OK, let's take a year to plan it properly to ensure students and educators have the best working conditions and learning environment possible."

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