For the Record: Mayor Emanuel’s ad

September 25, 2012

In the wake of the recent teachers’ strike, the September board meeting started out as mostly a congratulatory session among board members, district officials and the union leadership, who lauded each other for working long hours to craft a deal.

But when Chicago Teachers Union Recording Secretary Michael Brunson came up to the podium, he issued a bit of a warning, saying the television ad featuring Mayor Rahm Emanuel touting the supposed wins in the contract is not helpful.

The contract still needs to be ratified by members and it is still in a delicate stage, Brunson said.

“Stop the flexing,” Brunson said. “Stop the saber-rattling.”

Tuesday is the last day that the ad will run, says Rebeca Nieves Huffman of Education Reform Now, the outside advocacy group that paid for the ad. Huffman would not say how much the ad cost or why it was wrapping up its run.

Huffman said the organization thought that it was important to run the ad for two reasons. Emanuel, a Democrat who pushed through education reforms, needed to be highlighted, she said. “Democrats haven’t wanted to get in front of these issues because they are fearful of union backlash,” Huffman said. “We wanted to show a Democrat who survived the fight.”

Also, she said Chicagoans needed to know that there were “some great wins for kids in this tentative contract.”

But virtually none of what Emanuel talks about in the commercial can rightly be called “wins” in the negotiations.  The successes claimed by the mayor were actually accomplished as the result of state legislation and, to some degree, Emanuel’s role as chief of staff in the White House.  

In the ad, Emanuel says that as a result of the contract, students will have a “full” day of school, principals will have the freedom to hire the best teacher, parents retained the right to choose the best school for their kids and student achievement will be part of a teacher’s evaluation. Yet items 1 and 4 are driven by state law. School choice, as far as anyone knows, was not even on the table in negotiations.

The longer school day was a foregone conclusion under Senate Bill 7 (which Emanuel did lobby for). Senate Bill 7 made the length of the school day a “permissive item” in bargaining, which means that the employer is not required to discuss it with the union. This meant that Emanuel could impose whatever length of day he wanted, without discussing it with the union.

During negotiations, CPS did allow discussions over the length of the day, but did not budge on the time they wanted (though the mayor had earlier, under pressure from parents and community activists who felt the district had no clear plan for the longer day, scaled back from 7-1/2 hours per day to 7 hours).

Instead, under pressure to pay teachers more for the additional time they would have to work, CPS agreed to shift schedules and to hire 500-some additional teachers so that regular teachers would not have to work longer. Planning and collaboration time for teachers—something that many experts say is essential to having good instruction and a cohesive curriculum—was lost in the compromise.

Emanuel also says he won on giving principals full discretion over teacher hiring, though principals have long had hiring freedom dating back to the landmark 1988 school reform law. The union had wanted principals to be compelled to hire a displaced teacher if three qualified teachers applied for a position. Instead CTU got a promise from CPS to force principals to interview three displaced qualified, highly-rated teachers and, if none are hired, to provide the reason to the Office of Talent Development.

It is questionable whether giving preference to displaced teachers would really amount to stripping principals of hiring discretion.

Emanuel did play a part in getting student growth on standardized tests factored into teacher evaluation, but his influence had nothing to do with the contract talks. During the strike, Emanuel pointed out that he helped Education Secretary Arne Duncan write the bill that created Race to the Top, the federal grant program that offered up millions to states that adopted policies and strategies favored by the U.S. Department of Education. One of those policies was tying teacher evaluation to student achievement on standardized tests.

In response, Illinois passed the Performance Evaluation Reform Act, which required that school districts tie a certain percentage of a teacher’s evaluation to student growth on standardized tests and performance tasks. CPS officials originally wanted to tie teacher’s evaluations to a higher percentage than the law requires.

But the deal calls for the minimum during the three years of the contract, though CPS has said it plans to go beyond the minimum in an optional fourth year of the contract (both parties have to agree to a fourth-year extension). That statement led CTU President Karen Lewis to say the union will likely reject an extension to force CPS officials to haggle with them.