I am hesitant to draw too many conclusions about the just-ended Chicago Teachers Union strike. With an overwhelming recommendation by the CTU delegates’ assembly, after talking with the rank-and-file on the picket lines, we can probably assume that the membership as a whole will ratify the tentative agreement. But the practical and political implications of the strike and the settlement are not very clear, despite attempts by observers to declare various winners and losers, after all the verbiage expended over the strike in 9 days.

A few things are clear. First, Karen Lewis is a more effective leader of Chicago teachers than any CTU president in several decades, if effectiveness is measured by the ability to inspire rank and file teachers to work hard enough to meet the new legal requirements for striking, to maintain discipline before and during the strike, and to surprise the Chicago establishment on several occasions. Incidentally, Ben Joravsky explains the relevant recent history of the CTU and why it took a few days for the delegate assembly to call off the strike and, more generally, why union democracy is a little messy.

Second, the Chicago Board of Education decided in the end that merit pay was not a high priority. Often in bargaining, it is not clear what the priorities really were until after the process is concluded. It turned out to be much more important to the board to settle the issue of recall rights in a way that left principals some autonomy to reject some members of laid-off teachers with recall rights. In one of my very few accurate predictions over the years, I correctly guessed last Wednesday that there were several feasible compromises on the recall issue, and that any likely tentative agreement would use a feasible but messy compromise. Surprisingly, two opponents on virtually every other education policy issue now agree that K-12 merit pay is not particularly valuable: NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen and Jay Greene.1 The implications they draw from that perspective are very different–Greene would like the dissolution of public education as most Americans now know it–but it is a striking congruence of views. And in some measure, the Chicago Board of Education agrees with them that merit pay wasn’t and isn’t the most important issue on the table.

Third, the strike is clearly a Rorschach test for observers. The quick conclusion I read this morning was a union victory, at least by various nationally-known folk (Rick Hess, Mike Petrilli, Diane Ravitch). I think it is a significantly different outcome from the results of bargaining under Lewis’s predecessor, Marilyn Stewart, and even local and temporary victories are still meaningful to those who work under the conditions of a specific contract. Yet if you look at the state law that shaped bargaining and evaluation in combination with this bargaining session, the inclusion of student test scores in teacher evaluation is both a dramatic change from prior policy and the result of processes that involved CTU under an assertive president.

Fourth, and this is the most important part, the parts of the contract that touch the core of urban education policy still do not interrupt or slow down a fundamentally failed policy of school dissolution and contracting-out to charters.2 Chicago students have experienced extraordinary churn in their schools under Paul Vallas, Arne Duncan, Ron Huberman, and Jean-Claude Brizard, and the evidence of improvement under such a status quo (if you can call constant churn the status quo) is meager at best. In many places, teachers will take solace in the ability of CTU to gain the attention of the president’s first chief of staff, but collective bargaining addresses the working conditions of teachers, not all broader education policy.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader, and sign up for my irregular newsletter below!


  1. I couldn’t quite find a place where Eskelsen argues that clearly ineffective teachers should not be paid less than good teachers but paid nothing, but I’ve heard it in person. The ways of evaluating teachers and how to address personnel issues are very different for the two, of course. []
  2. I do not call it privatization if Chicago taxpayer money goes to contracted entities. Chicago essentially has government purchasing of the management of several dozens schools. []