Wednesday will be another school day for 566 students at Fuentes Elementary charter school on Chicago's Northwest Side. Fuentes isn't a traditional Chicago public school, but part of the United Neighborhood Organization network of charter schools, run under different rules without union teachers.
Fuentes students — who outperform students in traditional Chicago public schools in reading and math — have been in class since Aug. 6. They haven't missed a single day of instruction while 350,000 of their peers have slept late and waited for striking teachers to return to classrooms. Their parents have not had to scramble to find alternatives. Think the parents of those 350,000 kids haven't noticed the normalcy at schools such as Fuentes? Think those waiting lists for charters across the city aren't about to explode? Think again.
On Wednesday, striking Chicago teachers will finally return to classrooms. On Tuesday afternoon, the Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates voted to suspend the union's strike, pending a ratification vote of all 26,000 members on a new contract.
We'll save you the trouble of wading through this massive contract, 10 months in the haggling. Bottom line: This is not a status-quo-hugging contract. On balance, this deal should bring Chicago closer to other big cities and states that are pushing even more dramatic reforms.
Most important: Students will get a longer instructional day. Teachers will face a far tougher evaluation process that for the first time holds them accountable for student academic growth. That will help identify the teachers who most consistently help students learn. It should help teachers improve. And it should usher the weakest teachers out the door.
That's the deal on paper. What we don't know — what no one knows — is how 681 CPS principals will respond to this deal.
Will they use the new evaluation system to aggressively push mediocre teachers out of classrooms if they don't quickly improve? Or will principals find the system, with a new appeals process larded onto an already cumbersome dismissal protocol, too much trouble? The contract provides a framework to immensely improve the quality of teachers in Chicago. Or to do virtually nothing.
Beyond this contract is a larger reality: This school system faces declining enrollment and rising expenses. CPS needs to find a sustainable financial footing. This contract doesn't help much. Yes, one of the most egregious financial abuses — allowing teachers to bank hundreds of sick days, for example — will finally end.
But the system faces back-to-back billion-dollar deficits and huge upcoming pension payments. It has no available reserves. And now, it has promised $295 million in salary hikes to teachers.
The system needs to operate on a much smaller footprint. The toughest work of all — closing and consolidating scores of underenrolled and underperforming schools — must start now. CTU President Karen Lewis called those closings "the big elephant in the room" — one of the things that most worried her members about their future under this contract. They know — we know — closings are inevitable.
That can't be just about downsizing the system to save money. It needs to be about giving all CPS students a wider array of choices for a better education.
One major way to do that: more charters. There's already a waiting list of 19,000 students for Chicago charter schools. Those are students seeking a better education. They are the children of parents desperate to find improved opportunities for their daughters and sons.
The mayor and his schools team need to cut that charter waiting list number to zero — soon. CPS needs to attract new nationally successful charter operators and help existing ones with proven track records expand. The cap on Chicago charters should be lifted by state legislators. Let 100 Fuentes schools bloom.
CPS has other powerful tools to revive troubled schools, including its successful "turnaround" program in which the district replaces school leadership and staff, revamps curriculum, beefs up security and brings in more social workers and counselors. This strategy is yielding impressive student gains in many cases. CPS should put more schools into turnaround.
The first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years should be the last Chicago teachers strike ever. By state law, police and firefighters are prohibited from striking because they are considered essential personnel. The education of our children is essential, too. The academic damage done to the children of Chicago has been unconscionable. We hope this strike, supposedly all but impossible under a 2011 reform law, convinces lawmakers in Springfield that the law needs to be improved. Most states bar teachers strikes. Illinois needs to join the crowd.
On Wednesday morning, teachers and students will be back in class. Where they belong. The school year starts anew. We hope everyone, including those with the responsibility to refashion CPS, will make the most of it.
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