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CTU should return to classrooms during negotiations

Striking Chicago teachers march Wednesday from Dyett High School. 555 E. 51st St. Price School 4351 S. Drexel.  |

Striking Chicago teachers march Wednesday from Dyett High School. 555 E. 51st St., to Price School, 4351 S. Drexel. | Brian Jackson~Sun Times

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Updated: October 15, 2012 9:25AM

Marcela Martinez, a teacher at Seward Academy in the Back of the Yards neighborhood for 15 years, was at Monday’s rally in front of City Hall in support of the teachers strike.

Martinez wore the red Chicago Teachers Union T-shirt and held a sign in Spanish alluding to the strike being about the students.

“We are not only teachers. We are parents, counselors and nurses for our students, and we do it with love,” Martinez told me. “We deserve a fair contract.”

Martinez said she would be on the picket line for as long as it takes.

The strike is polarizing the city as it drags on. For weeks now, we all have heard arguments for and against the teachers going on strike for the first time in 25 years.

The CTU and the Chicago Public Schools should focus on reaching a fundamental and binding agreement that would allow teachers to go back to the classroom while negotiators continue to iron out a final contract. This could be done if both sides remembered that the children come first and foremost.

I agree with Martinez and her fellow striking teachers that they deserve a cost-of-living salary increase. But I know people in the private sector who have been getting by on 1 percent salary increases — if that — for years. Most feel lucky just to have a job. The teachers should feel pretty good to have an offer on the table of 16 percent over four years.

Sure, teachers agreed to work longer hours and a longer school year, but plenty of other people have been working longer hours for years just to hang on to their jobs during the recession.

Martinez also mentioned the difficult issue of teachers’ evaluations, which to a large extent are supposed to be based on students’ standardized test scores. Teachers complain that the emphasis on standardized testing forces them to “teach to the test.”

They’ve got a great point. The goal of the schools should not be to produce students who are good test takers at the expense of teaching critical thinking, problem-solving and effective written and oral communication.

But, at the same time, Chicago teachers should be the first ones to be upset about dismal graduation rates, particularly among minority students. A first-rate city like Chicago cannot afford to have 40 percent of its public students not graduating.

Martinez favors greater job security for teachers. As new jobs open up, the CTU argues, the school district should be required to hire educators who have lost their jobs because of school closings, consolidations or turnarounds. CPS, though, is adamant that educators would have to reapply for those jobs — with a promise of an interview — or take a three-month-severance package.

This may be the single biggest roadblock to an agreement. The union fears that up to 6,000 teachers could lose their jobs as the system is restructured, and so job security has become a big priority. And, they say, strong job security policies create a stable school system that benefits children.

True enough, perhaps. But that kind of job security is hardly a reality anywhere else these days.

An agreement can be reached. The two sides are not that far apart. Let’s get it done for the sake of the students.

And so that teachers like Marcela Martinez can go back to the classrooms where they belong.

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