Linda Chavez

Children in Chicago may soon be back in school, if members of the 26,000-member Chicago Federation of Teachers vote to accept a new contract whose details at this writing are still being finalized. But are there any winners in this confrontation in the nation's third-largest school district with some 350,000 students?

It has been 25 years since Chicago teachers walked the picket line -- and their decision to do so this time runs counter to a nationwide trend toward fewer strikes by unionized teachers. The decision was all the more surprising given who sits on the other side of the bargaining table: former Obama White House Chief of Staff and now Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel.

For decades, teacher unions have been able to count on Democratic politicians to give them more or less what they want come bargaining time -- it was good politics. Unions deliver for Democratic politicians in their runs for office -- and when they're elected, the Dems return the favor by giving the unions sympathetic treatment at the bargaining table.

But the equation has changed since cities, big and small, have run into major deficits, with no way to close them. Chicago's schools faced a $300 million deficit when Emmanuel took office, and the education budget faces an expected $3 billion shortfall over the next three years. As a result, last year the mayor rescinded a 4 percent raise the CTU had previously negotiated and announced his intentions to extend the school day to give Chicago's poor-performing students more time to learn.

Word from inside the bargaining talks is that the city has agreed to a 16 percent increase in pay over the next four years -- with no clear plan how to fund it -- and is willing to compromise on the terms of an extended day. But the big stumbling blocks in the CTU strike have to do with teacher evaluations and the right of laid-off teachers to be the hired first when new positions open.

Most parents and taxpayers would consider the evaluation issue a no-brainer. Why shouldn't teachers be evaluated on what their students learn over the course of a year? But the sticking point has been what criteria the district uses to conduct the evaluations. Reform-minded districts have moved toward standardized tests, which compare student scores in a given school to scores across the nation. Chicago, like many other urban school districts, ranks abysmally low. Only 21 percent of Chicago eighth graders read at or above the proficient level, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress results for 2012, which is lower than even big-city averages nationwide.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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