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Pay no attention to the posturing in Chicago teacher contract talks

Under the leadership of Mayor Richard M. Daley and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS became one of the fastest-improving school districts in the country.

On Sept. 17, 2012, Chicago teachers rally outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office at City Hall.
On Sept. 17, 2012, Chicago teachers rally outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office at City Hall.
Sun-Times Media

As a former president of The Chicago Board of Education who led the negotiating team in the 2012 contract negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union, I understand better than most the public posturing that goes with labor contract negotiations. This week is a good illustration.

On Monday, the Chicago Sun-Times published an op-ed from the current president of the Board of Education, Miguel Del Valle, disparaging his predecessors and celebrating the 2012 teacher strike as “an incredible and unforgettable moment for all Chicagoans.” If his intention was to cozy up to the unions and avert a strike, it apparently didn’t work. Twenty-four hours later, the current head of the CTU, Jesse Sharkey, responded, hyperbolically lamenting the “assault on the civil rights” of students and characterizing the city’s labor negotiator as “anti-union.”

Welcome to the show, Chicago.

Both narratives undermine the goal and purpose of labor negotiations, which is to reach an agreement that simultaneously serves the interests of students, teachers and taxpayers. It’s especially disappointing that the current president of the School Board ignores the important work of those who came before him that contributed so much to CPS’ success.

Perhaps he is unaware of the years of the extensive lobbying and negotiating with a statewide group of stakeholders that got the state Legislature to pass landmark legislation that both increased education funding and established a formula to distribute it equitably so those in need would get extra resources necessary for success.

In that same legislation, the mayor and board leadership fought hard to get the state to meet its promise to treat Chicago teacher retirees just like teachers in the rest of the state. And, once given authorization by the state, we took the hard vote to increase real estate taxes to stabilize the school board’s finances.

Without those efforts, the current school board would not be able to make a fair and generous salary offer to today’s teachers and commit to add the needed support staff.

Perhaps the current president does not realize the value of the longer school day and extended school year we secured in 2012, which provides up to two years of additional classroom time for our students during a student’s K-12 career. I remind him that teachers are the most important in-school factor in student performance and more learning time is the key to our success.

That policy shift was fairly negotiated with the CTU and they agreed to it because they knew it was good for kids. And contrary to his claim, teachers secured an additional salary increase for the longer hours.

As part of that agreement the board also agreed to add 100 certified arts teachers so that the extended day could provide enriched curriculum options. Based on that commitment, and in partnership with the president of the CTU, we adopted the CPS Arts Plan, creating one of the best and broadest big-city arts programs in the country.

The 2012 contract agreement also led to the first comprehensive revision to the teacher evaluation system in over 25 years. The new system focuses on enhancing interactions between principals and teachers and providing structured feedback to teachers to help them improve their practice. Based on the agreement and given the significance of the overhaul, CTU and CPS jointly created and staffed an implementation committee.

I could go on, but President Del Valle’s characterization of the negotiations as an anti-teacher fiasco conducted in the shadow of a contentious teacher strike are misleading. The negotiations were conducted respectfully and produced significant enhancements focused on improving teaching and learning.

Most important, under the leadership of Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel as well as the district leaders and school board members they appointed, CPS became one of the fastest-improving districts in the entire country, according to researchers at Stanford, the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago. The worst possible outcome in today’s negotiations is for CPS to lose the momentum that has brought progress in recent years.

Opinions aside, results speak for themselves. On behalf of all of us who labored to improve academic outcomes and life opportunities for Chicago’s children, and all Chicagoans who share the belief that good schools are the foundation of a strong city, I wish the current administration all the best in continuing and building upon the work that preceded them.

David Vitale was chief operating officer of the Chicago Public Schools from 2005-2007 and president of the Chicago Board of Education from 2011 to 2015. The Sun-Times is publishing this op-ed in the wake of an op-ed penned by Chicago school board President Miguel Del Valle that was published on Sept. 23 and a related op-ed penned by CTU President Jesse Sharkey published on Sept. 24.

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