09/14/2012 03:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

CTU Strike: What's at Stake in Teacher Retention, Evaluation Battles?

From this week's Chicago Newsroom on CAN TV:

As of Thursday evening, there's so far been no settlement in the teachers' strike, but optimism prevails. There's still time for what Catalyst Chicago's Rebecca Harris calls "a deal that both sides will be able to spin as a win."

As we awaited a settlement today, we tried to get a clearer understanding of the two big issues everyone says are still on the table -- teacher retention rights and teacher evaluations.

Retention -- the right of a teacher who's been laid off when a school closes or is reconstituted -- could become a big deal if CPS makes good on its plan to seriously reduce the 100,000-plus surplus "seats" in the system.

"What CPS is currently offering is a procedure that would allow first dibs at interviews and in some cases limited recall rights for some teachers but it would only be available for teachers with proficient or better ratings," Harris explains. "CTU is looking for something a little bit more like the interim agreement they reached with the CPS last summer that would guarantee that if a certain number of displaced teachers applied for a position, a principal would have to choose one of those, as long as the teachers were qualified."

No matter what, CPS will have to find a bunch of money to pay for the modified contract, and one way is to close schools. But Columbia College's Dan Weissman, a journalist who's covered school issues for years, says that, in his experience, closing buildings can be deceiving:

It was surprising how little money you ended up with at the end of the day, if you were going to close a building as a CPS site. The tradition they've been employing is that they would continue to operate that building as a site that's run by someone who's going to operate a charter network or who is contracting to you, so you're still operating that building.

And since you're probably not going to tear the building down, you have to keep it heated if it's unoccupied.

Teacher evaluation is a real sticking point, not just in Chicago but in school districts everywhere, large and small.

"The state has mandated hat at least 30 percent of a teacher's evaluation be tied to student performance," Harris explains. "CPS had originally said they wanted to make that up around 40 percent. Now they're saying they want to phase it in to be eventually around 35 percent. But there's still this push and pull with the union where the CTU would like to factor in only the amount mandated by state law and not any more."

And, she says, the idea is that there will be categories of teacher proficiency levels.

Under CPS' current proposal, the district is estimating that the bottom 1.5 percent of teachers would be rated unsatisfactory, another 28 percent would be rated as 'developing' or 'needs improvement' so that's one of the things the union is taking issue with. They think the second category should be made smaller, so more teachers are proficient.

So we don't know where these issues stand, but we have an idea how complex and controversial these issues are.

Weissman, however, says it's all those other issues -- the ones not being discussed at the bargaining table, that have been animating the picket lines.

There are all these other issues that this is an opportunity to talk about. One teacher told me yesterday, I can't be fired for what I say while I'm out on strike. That this is an opportunity to talk about the jobs they want to do, that they're trying to do. All the teachers are saying to me, look, it's 115 degrees in my classroom, I proposed to buy air conditioning units myself and they said great, we'll also send you the electric bill.

"There's such a long list," he says, "of grievances that teachers have that involve management decisions that can be variously interpreted as arbitrary, misguided or malicious. Or incompetent. And they have so few opportunities to protest that whole menu of things. And so the energy that I've seen on teacher picket lines I have to say I find quite moving."