Chicago teacher strike a test for unions

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The massive teacher strike in Chicago offers a high-profile test for the nation’s teacher unions, which have seen their political influence threatened as a growing reform movement seeks to expand charter schools, get private companies involved with failing schools and link teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Union leaders are taking a major stand on teacher evaluations, one of the key issues in the Chicago dispute. If they lose there, it could have ripple effects around the country.

The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association — the nation’s two largest teacher unions — have been playing defense in jurisdictions around the country as Republicans and Democrats alike seek greater concessions in a bid to improve ailing public schools.

After decades of growth in membership and influence, the unions now are in a weaker position, said Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

“They are playing on more hostile terrain and they are facing opponents the likes of which they have not had to face before,” Hess said.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union — the AFT’s oldest local — walked off the job Monday for the first time in 25 years over issues that include pay raises, classroom conditions, job security and teacher evaluations.

They are pitted against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a powerful Democrat — and former chief of staff to President Barack Obama — who wants to extract more concessions from teachers while the school district faces a nearly $700 million deficit.

With the weak economy, unions have seen massive teacher layoffs, increased class sizes and school districts unable or unwilling to boost teacher salaries.

The 2.2-million member NEA has lost more than 100,000 members since 2010, as fewer public school teachers are hired and more charter schools open, most of which are not unionized. At the 1.5 million-member AFT, years of steady growth have leveled off.

In the past, teachers unions could count on a Democratic White House to fight back on their behalf. But Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, is a former head of Chicago Public Schools who has pushed for many of the changes that unions oppose.

“In many ways the Obama administration has signed onto the very conservative set of reforms that the education community is imposing on teachers,” said Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

Evaluating teachers on how much their students improve is a key component of Obama’s education policy. His administration has approved waivers freeing many states from the most onerous requirements of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law. In order to get a waiver, each state had to promise to show in other ways that its students and schools are improving, and to more closely link teacher evaluations to student test scores.

The Chicago union argues that the new teacher evaluation system relies too heavily on standardized test scores without considering outside factors such as student poverty, violence and homelessness that can affect performance.

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