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Editorial: The hard truth behind teachers’ laments

Mayor Emanuel Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard annouce April thelementary schools will extend school day.  |  John

Mayor Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard annouce in April that elementary schools will extend the school day. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 19, 2012 6:07AM

Chicago’s public school teachers said a lot with their overwhelming vote last week to authorize a strike.

And their rejection of a puny proposed raise is just a part of it.

When 90 percent of teachers authorize a strike there’s no denying the anger in our schools. For months, Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard and Mayor Rahm Emanuel downplayed the bubbling resentment. Then, they tried to meddle in the strike vote.

Only after the results came in did Brizard acknowledge to Chicago Sun-Times reporter Rosalind Rossi what must have been obvious to the former teacher all along: “What I see in the numbers is a level of anger and frustration of being asked to do so much without the proper dollars to support it,” he said.

Finally, the schools chief spoke to one of his teachers’ deepest grievances: working for a chronically underfunded school system that lacks the dollars and the wherewithal to offer the basic services all kids deserve. Many teachers also strongly disagree with the direction Brizard is taking CPS.

His longer school day, they argue, doesn’t include adequate funding to make it a better day. They also argue that his reforms will exacerbate pressure to teach to the test and unfairly scapegoat teachers for conditions beyond their control.

For the sake of a better school system, Brizard must address these issues, although, as we’ve said before, contract talks aren’t the right venue. Labor con­tracts are about pay, benefits and core working conditions — spending dollars the school system has, not dollars it wishes it had. They are labor negotiations, not school reform negotiations.

But it would be a mistake for Brizard and Emanuel to ignore these cries as they move forward with their chosen reforms, many of which we support. The union is raising critical questions and the CPS should work with teachers to resolve them. These are the issues we consider most pressing:

 More student supports: In February, the CTU put out a thoughtful blueprint for school improvement that featured a recommendation we have long supported: dramatically increasing the number of social workers, counselors and school psychologists per school. The troubles that students bring to school interrupt learning yet CPS continues to hire shamefully low numbers of mental health experts for its schools.

 A better day: All schools will move to a longer day when school resumes, but it’s doubtful that most schools will have enough money to add the music, art and gym classes that would make it a significantly better day.

 A different board: There is growing dissatisfaction with the makeup of Emanuel’s appointed school board. We don’t support an elected board, but an improved board would include fewer well-intended wealthy people and more regular folks with experience in CPS schools — parents, principals, graduates.

Meanwhile, CPS can make meaningful contract concessions right now to help improve working conditions:

 A decent raise: a pay bump that reflects the increased hours in a longer school day — but one that also acknowledges that current salaries are based on a too-short day. Keep any raises based on student performance to a minimum.

 Class size limits: CPS wants to remove language from the contract that spells out class size limits. Those limits are laid out elsewhere, in CPS’ class size policy, and Brizard hasn’t changed the current limits. But CTU wants the extra protection of the language in the contract and CPS should relent.

 Value experienced teachers: Experienced teachers displaced from closed schools can struggle to find a new position because of their tenure status and because of the black mark that can accompany a closure (which ironically punishes teachers who seek out those challenging positions). We don’t support blanket recall rights but think well-rated teachers should get job openings before teachers who are new to CPS.

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