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Chicago Teachers Prepare To Vote

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Chicago Teachers Union president Marilyn Stewart and the woman she unseated three years ago, Debbie Lynch, are locked in an acrimonious battle for the union’s top job. At issue is everything from the current contract to the larger question of how teachers should work with the district on education reform. Chicago Public Radio’s Jay Field reports.

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On some key issues, Stewart and Lynch sound like they’re on the same team. Both bemoan rising health care costs and promise to fight for better coverage and higher pay for teachers. That’s making it hard for teachers like Susan Glatz.

GLATZ: I haven’t made up my mind at this point.

Glantz, who teaches music, has agreed to talk union politics in the stuffy, third-floor teachers lounge at Foreman High School on the city’s northwest side. On June 30th, the current union contract expires. So the next President will immediately begin overseeing final negotiations with the Board of Education on a new agreement. One of Glatz’s biggest concerns is job security for new teachers.

GLATZ: Teachers feel strongly about the treatment of teachers who don’t have tenure. I certainly support my colleagues who taught less than four years.

Under the current contract, these so-called probationary teachers can be fired at anytime for tardiness, lack of attendence, trouble controlling their classrooms and other problems. Late last month, principals fired nearly eight-hundred them.

STEWART: Before this contract, we’ve never had this problem with people losing their jobs at this rate and for these reasons.

More than two-thousand probationary teachers have been let go in recent years and union President Marilyn Stewart blames her predecessor. Debbie Lynch negotiated the current union contract. Stewart says the agreement has failed to protect younger teachers and contributed to an overall decline in union membership.

STEWART: People have sold their homes, come into the city and you have no job security.

But Lynch says Stewart is mischaracterizing the situation.

LYNCH: We’ve done freedom of information act requests over the past couple years and we know for a fact that seventy-five percent of those annual spring displacements are for budget reasons. In other words, those positions are cut form those schools…

And not, according to Lynch, even covered by the part of the contract that addresses tenure. She says the deal she negotiated actually made it easier for teachers to attain job security—by eliminating a ranking system that gave principals the right to determine tenure.

LYNCH: Unfortunately, the current CTU administration has chosen to play politics with young teachers careers. And chosen for three years to attack and misrepresent.

If it sounds like there’s some bad blood between Lynch and Stewart, well, there is. The two fought a bitter election battle three years ago. Stewart defeated Lynch by just five-hundred and sixty-six votes.

While most of the current contest has focused on who is best equipped to negotiate the new contract, there are even more pressing issues facing the candidates—like in what direction the next president would take the union on education reform. Julia Koppich is an educational consultant based in San Francisco.

KOPPICH: No Child Left Behind, whatever its attributes, and I would say there are some—has so increased the pressure on teachers and principals to increase test scores in reading and math that its blocking out almost everything else.

In Chicago, education officials have responded to this mounting pressure with initiatives that have divided the union and challenged it as never before. Renaissance 20-10 has closed underperforming schools and opened new ones—many of them charter schools that aren’t required to hire union teachers. More recently, district officials introduced a plan to offer merit pay in a small number of pilot schools. Koppich says how the next president responds to these reforms will determine how much influence the union wields in the future.

KOPPICH: If they choose to remain traditional—cling to the kinds of union issues that built the unions in the 60s, I feel they will not be able to survive. If they become more nimble and think about their kind of bifurcated membership—older members, younger members, different interests---then they will have much more success.Both Stewart and Lynch oppose school closings under Renissance 20-10 and question the wisdom of experimenting with reforms like merit pay. And each accuses Chicago Mayor Richard Daley of backing these initiatives in an effort to break the union. The question is whether the next president can continue to take a hard line--and at the same time—ensure that union remains a powerful force in public education in Chicago.

I’m Jay Field, Chicago Public Radio.

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