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Neil Steinberg: Many stand to lose if teachers strike

Chicago Teachers UniPresident Karen Lewis along with board members are silhouetted Thursday after Chicago Teachers UniHouse Delegates unanimously agreed strike

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, along with board members are silhouetted Thursday after Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates unanimously agreed to strike starting Sept 10. August 30 2012. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 10, 2012 6:20AM

Banners from colleges — Harvard and Michigan State, Howard and Yale — hang from the ceiling in the second floor common corridor at the Chicago Vocational Career Academy on East 87th Street. The idea is that every day, as they come and go, students will see the goal — college — above their heads but not out of their reach.

“We have 300 new freshmen coming in, so we’re really proud,” said Principal Douglas Maclin, showing off a new culinary arts center. “Last year we only had 134, so with the new STEM program” — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, pairing the school with a business partner, in CVCA’s case, Motorola — “we nearly tripled our enrollment.”

More than 400,000 students attend Chicago Public Schools, a number difficult to really grasp. If our school system were a city, it would be bigger than Miami.

That city may — or may not — be plunged into disarray on Monday, when the Chicago Teachers Union is set to strike. That’s why I was at CVCA, a last minute push by the administration to try to illustrate what is at stake here.

It’s a compelling argument — the school year just started, the students are learning.

Of course, others would also be deeply affected by a strike. I count four groups and one person with a lot to lose here. There are the students, of course, who began school Tuesday with a lengthened day and other improvements, such as STEM magnet schools that offer community college degrees — Chicago has five such schools; I visited another, the Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, so brand new they haven’t put up a sign yet.

There are the teachers, led by their fiery president, Karen Lewis, who passionately points out, and not without cause, that all these advances are also demands — a longer workday, longer work year, without either input from them or a comparable raise in pay.

There are the parents, who not only want their kids studying but, in many neighborhoods, want them off the street, out of harm’s way, and in case of a strike the board and many churches are trying to give them safe places to go.

Fourth, there is the city, its reputation already flecked with blood because of the murderous summer of 2012, or at least by the media’s reaction to it. A city that strikes is not a City that Works. It’s never a good thing.

Which leads to the person, Rahm Emunuel, who wants to avoid a strike, not just because it’s bad for students, bad for teachers, bad for parents and bad for the city, but — and he would never admit this, but it has to be true — it would be bad for him, for his reputation. A strike is a stain that never washes off. It could be resolved in an hour and it would still be a strike on his watch. Tap a Chicagoan on the shoulder and ask for a salient fact about the Jane Byrne administration, and after a mention of camping at Cabrini Green, they’ll say “school strike” (or “transit strike” or “firefighter strike.”) Nobody forgets strikes.

I’m a good union man, and understand the value of a strike threat. It’s designed to extract every dime that tight-wad bosses are willing to pay to have employees keep working. Done right, a strike is a real possibility that’s about to happen, really and truly, with picket signs printed and employees in their hats and coats at the door, eyes on the clock. Then it doesn’t happen — the clock stops at midnight for the Come-to-Jesus moment, the deal is struck, handshakes all around, the news goes out, a cheer goes up, workers and bosses are grimly satisfied that they got the best deal they could, and everybody lurches onward.

A strike should be like “Waiting for Godot” — everyone talks about him but he never shows up and then the play ends. A strike that actually occurs means failure. Someone didn’t follow the script. Maybe the mayor overplayed his part. Maybe Lewis really does want to pull that pin on the strike grenade, on general principles. Or maybe — I suspect this — she’s a better actor than she lets on.

The longer school day is undeniably a good thing — getting paid more would be nice, but as someone who hasn’t gotten a raise in years, I’m one of the many wondering what planet teachers live on. I live on Planet Glad to Have a Job. While I don’t want to be suckered by a couple showcase schools, the energy and effort I saw there are undeniable.

“I really want to be valedictorian,” said Kayla Kopplin, 17, a CVCA senior. I popped into Honors Algebra 1, to watch freshmen taking a diagnostic test involving a mosquito who flew 0.6 miles and then had to stop.

“We did a thinking problem before that -- normally I’d have to go straight to test time, and I would have nothing else other than test time,” said Megan Payne, a 6-year CPS veteran teacher. “So the extra time allows me to actually get something in that is engaging and talking and the kids are working.”

She has a stoical view about Monday.

“For me, whatever’s going to happen . . . ” she said, pausing, “it’s going to happen. I’d rather be here in the classroom with the kids.”

I suspect most people feel that way.

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