09.19.12

Mayor Rahm Emanuel Reaches Flawed Deal to End Chicago Teachers Strike

Emanuel claimed the agreement would put Chicago in the forefront of the national reform movement, but it is unclear how the system can afford some $300 million in pay increases over the deal's likely four-year duration.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a relentless political figure caricatured as a bloodless take-no-prisoners practitioner, poignantly choked up Tuesday evening as he discussed the importance of education to the city's poorest children after teachers suspended a nationally watched, six-day strike.

“The classroom is where they learn not only do they have a place in the future of this city but they are the future of this city, and we as adults have responsibilities to the children of the city of Chicago so they can live up to their future and their full potential," he said amid a rare show of emotion.

But when the dust settles after Emanuel's first major crisis, taxpayers and education reformers might shed a tear over a system the city still can't afford and a new contract's modest advances in addressing the very problems that a wickedly bright mayor knows plague the system. It might explain his declining to take questions about specifics, such as how a financially desperate system can even afford roughly $300 million in pay increases over the deal's likely four-year duration.

On message even in times of stress and ambiguity, Emanuel argued that a new deal, still to be approved by 26,000 rank-and-file teachers after they return to work Wednesday, represents a sweeping change in urban education.

And, for sure, it includes memorializing a previously instituted longer day; big savings in shortening severance pay; a new system of assessing teachers; and some greater leeway for principals when it comes to whom they hire. In a larger historical context, Emanuel's opened important doors after a Herculean effort that confronted a nearly immovable object in a change-resistant union, but avoided the volcanic rancor that has plagued government-union relations elsewhere, notably in neighboring Wisconsin.

Emanuel pointedly identified the system's problems, but has not brought its major wolves at the door to heel.

But it was also revealing to hear the muted praise, if that, voiced by the same education reformers with whom Emanuel had successfully fought to pass important new state legislation last year. None of their ilk appeared to suggest, as the mayor has, that this deal would put Chicago in the forefront of the national reform movement.

Among them was Bruce Rauner, a private-equity executive and close personal friend of the Democratic mayor despite being a Republican who is mulling running for Illinois governor. Speaking at a Chicago tax conference Tuesday that was sponsored by the Dallas-based George W. Bush Institute, a seemingly unexcited Rauner declared, “We have given in on certain key issues."

Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, a reform group that lobbied hard for the new state law, said, "Whatever you think of the merits, I think we can all agree there ought to be a better way to resolve tough issues."

“From a student's point of view, there's some good news, some bad news, and some unfinished business, but everyone—especially students—pays a price when you go through a strike. It's going to take time, effort, and leadership on all sides to get back to the working relationships we need to tackle the serious issues facing Chicago schools.”

Throughout an adroitly executed campaign for mayor, Emanuel aggressively and correctly identified the problems plaguing a system marked by poor student achievement, a high dropout rate, insufficient teacher accountability, and intolerably rising costs despite a declining student population. And when push came to shove with the Chicago Teachers Union, which seemingly found itself on the wrong side of history when it came to education's need for major changes, he was willing to do what his renowned predecessor, Richard M. Daley, was not: stand fast and take a strike.

That walkout briefly raised the possibility that the union, now seen as militant compared with many of its teacher counterparts nationwide, might grasp defeat from the jaws of victory and dilute its sweeping public support. It had, after all, surprised many by out-negotiating Emanuel. 

It fended off his desire for merit pay and the elimination of automatic raises based on seniority and any advanced degrees they achieve. It opened the door to assuring that some laid-off teachers get first crack at job vacancies, something ditched in Chicago under a 1995 deal between Daley and the state legislature.

On teacher evaluations, there is improvement over the current system but it seems in line with what's mandated under the new state law. How its actual implementation plays out and evolves, replete with the active help of teachers in formulating its rollout, will be important to study.

And, when it comes to money, teachers will get what some are calculating as a 16 percent or 17 percent pay hike over the potential four years of the deal (three years for sure with the option of a fourth by mutual agreement). In a recession, teachers have done well. In addition, at least 500 of the union's previously laid-off members have already returned to assist with a gaping anomaly: the deal lengthens the school day by about an hour and 15 minutes at elementary schools; no teacher will teach anything beyond a few minutes more.

That curiosity prompted a need for more bodies to deal with what, in my own child's school, amounts to only 20 more minutes of actual instruction (the rest is largely in the assuredly beneficial lengthening of recess and luncheon). Indeed, it remains publicly unclear how much more instruction there is systemwide, even if one applauds Emanuel for dealing decisively with what had been the shortest day and year of any major American school system.

Ultimately, he's attempting to set a new course for an overweight and rusting battleship. The system is too qualitatively uneven and expensive, with, by any rational dissection, the need to close many underpopulated schools. That need, plus Emanuel's Daley-like push for more charter schools (not under the union's aegis), scares the union mightily, and led to its fierce fight for an ironclad recall provision, or what amounts to de facto lifetime tenure.

Emanuel refused its call that a principal hire a laid-off teacher when three of them applied for a vacancy. Ultimately, the city agreed that half of new hires be displaced teachers (based on teacher evaluations that seemingly would make most teachers, even not especially good ones, eligible). In cases where that didn't happen, the more tenured of those teachers would still be kept in the system, and paid for a period of time.

Emanuel pointedly identified the system's problems but has not brought its major wolves at the door to heel. The teachers, who now average about $74,000 a year and cost the system in the vicinity of $100,000 with benefits, will continue to ravenously suck up most of the system's cash.

Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a tax and government research group, said late Tuesday that it was too early to fully analyze the contract's details but it seemed very difficult for the city to accommodate the pay hikes. Significant reductions in schools and teachers will be necessary.

The current budget, he noted, provided for only a 2 percent raise, with no hikes for years of service and advanced degrees. That meant draining all the reserves in the school system's general fund and some added restricted reserves totaling $431.8 million to close a deficit of $665 million. In doing that, the system failed to heed its own fund-balance policy.

The system has already projected a $1 billion deficit for the 2014 fiscal year due to its structural deficit and the end of a three-year partial suspension of contributions to the teachers' pension fund. Those required contributions will grow by at least $338 million, Msall said, to $534 million in fiscal 2014, from $196 million in fiscal 2013.

The system's long-term debt has risen by 28.3 percent, or $1.1 billion, in the last five years, largely due to its capital construction program.

"In summary," he said, "the wage increases and other enhancements will likely require very dramatic cuts in personnel."

It's something that Emanuel, even as he turned emotional Tuesday, knows is unavoidable: to save itself, the system must shrink dramatically.