The primary media narrative concerning the CTU strike seems to be that it is a MegaBattle which could decide the future of unions, the structure of schools, the influence of ed reform policy wonks, and the very soul of K-12 public education. It is the Super Bowl of School Reform, or a potential Union Waterloo. Except that it’s not.
Yes, the CTU strike is a big deal – especially for the 350,000 kids not in classrooms. But the differences — while more substantial than the slanderous claim of musical preference for Nickelback — are not differences of kind. They are differences of degree.
The core debate is over teacher evaluation and job protection, and on each the argument is not about whether or not a policy will undergo substantial change, it is about how quickly and deeply these changes are implemented. The debate on these principles is incremental, not binary. It is about the pace of change, not the change itself.
It’s now accepted — even in Chicago — that student data is going to be a part of teacher evaluations. At issue is how much and how fast. That is a reasonable debate to have, but it is not a debate over the fundamental principle. The CTU’s position is not to forbid the introduction of student data on evaluations, it is to try to control it. There is a big difference.
Likewise, the second major issue is job protection: how much preference should be given to tenure when making hiring decisions (and should teachers who are laid off when underperforming schools are closed be automatically first in line for new jobs). But the idea that quality should be the primary component in hiring and firing is pretty hard to oppose. Virtually all states with LIFO (last in, first out) policies are examining them, and many (Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Oklahoma come to mind) have already changed. There is no state or district strengthening their LIFO policy, nor will there be in the forseeable future. No one expects the eventual agreement in Chicago to favor seniority above all else. Again, this is a debate about preference, but not about principle.
None of the best negotiators I know have big egos, and it’s clear that much of the disagreement is a battle of personalities that could go on for a long time. But at least nationally, support for the union position seems lukewarm at best. When the Brookings Institution, The New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune all weigh in fast and hard and against labor, the court of public opinion is likely to tilt.
Whatever happens, both sides will declare victory. And there is lots of room for each side to feel like they have won or lost. But in this case, emotion aside, the fundamental issues were decided well before any picket like was established.