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Should teachers be allowed to strike?

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An Illinois House subcommittee is expected to hold public hearings this week. They’re looking at how to limit the ability of teachers' unions to strike. Some education and labor experts worry such a change could diminish the power of teachers; people they consider vital partners in education reform. Hunter Clauss reported for WBEZ.

Many parents, teachers, and politicians in Chicago recall a time when teacher strikes seemed like a regular part of budget and contract negotiations. In 1987, Chicago teachers stopped working for four weeks, throwing the school system into chaos.

Parent Joy Noven begged then-Mayor Harold Washington to resolve that labor dispute. In her plea, she said: "We have teachers who are dedicated to this system. Let them do their job. We have parents who want to do help their job and help the teachers. Let them do it. Get the kids in school. We've had enough of it."

Washington would later credit parent pressure as crucial to bringing the strike to an end. Since then, there hasn't been a teachers strike in Chicago. But, still, a national education advocacy group called Stand for Children wants to make it harder for teachers unions across Illinois to go on strike.

The group has been active in six other states to restructure teacher tenure laws and performance evaluations. Now Stand for Children is working with the statewide education policy group- Advance Illinois-to push a legislative wish list to Illinois lawmakers.

Their agenda includes tying teacher tenure to performance evaluations, scaling back seniority as a factor in teacher layoffs, and making it more difficult for unions to strike.

CEO and co-founder of Stand for Children Jonah Edelman said, "This is a time of turbulence. There's going to be a lot of difficult decisions that need to be made on the district level. Obviously the goal is for school districts to make these difficult decisions in the most collaborative and productive possible way so everyone is really in the same direction."

Edelman says while he doesn't want to eliminate a union's ability to strike and that cash-strapped districts need flexibility in order to balance budgets. "I think it's kind of silly," Edelman explained. "You've got to call it what it is, and that is an absolute ban on the right to strike."

Dan Montgomery is president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, one of the state's largest teachers unions. He was among the labor experts, district officials, and teachers unions I talked with. Most agreed that even slowing down a union's ability to strike would reduce its power at the bargaining table.

And Montgomery asks: What's the point? "If you asked anybody, any parent in Illinois, 'What are the more pressing issues in education? What do we have to change for your kid's school to get better?' I really doubt that the teacher's ability to strike would be on the radar, because the vast majority of Illinois citizens have never even experienced one."

Bob Bruno teaches labor studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He says teachers unions are important partners in making schools better. And anything that marginalizes teachers could be harmful to education reform.

Bruno says, "Schools boards in Illinois and around the country are typically not made up of people who have any experience working in educational settings. In the city of Chicago, the CEO of the public school system has been now for the last couple of appointments someone with no education background. It's almost a prerequisite."

The idea that the Chicago Teachers Union could be mulling a strike seems to be gaining some attention.

Not so according to Karen Lewis, the president of that union. She says a strike is off the table as long as the Chicago Board of Education honors its contract.

"It's not worth talking about because it's not going to happen. And second of all, we have a contract," Lewis remarked. "These people want to honor it or not, and if they try not to honor it, we have a lot of options available to us."

Some union leaders say they're watching Stand for Children closely, in part because of the hundreds of thousands of dollars the group has put into political campaigns in Illinois. For his part, Stand for Children leader Jonah Edelman says the time is ripe for Illinois lawmakers to examine strike options and other aspects of teacher employment and quality.

And he hopes legislation around those ideas will emerge soon.

Music Button: The Mercury Program, "flourescent Laces", from the CD Chez Viking, (Lovitt Records)

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