Chicago Teachers Strike Draws National Attention

Audie Cornish speaks with Stephen Sawchuk, assistant editor of Education Week, about the national implications of the Chicago teacher strike.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For more on this and for a sense of how and why the school situation in Chicago affects the ongoing conversation about education policy across the country, we have Stephen Sawchuk. He's the assistant editor for Education Week. He joins us from Chicago. Welcome, Stephen.

STEPHEN SAWCHUK: Hi, Audie. Thanks so much for having me.

CORNISH: So, first, give us a sense of where Chicago school district fits in the national picture these days. I mean, how does Chicago schools compare with those in other big cities?

SAWCHUK: Well, Chicago, I think it's fair to say, is sort a crucible for a lot of the issues in urban education. Like other urban districts, Chicago has tended to have low achievement scores, and the gap between students of color and white students, it has had declining enrollment, like we've seen in Detroit and other big city districts. And there's been a push for aggressive educational reforms there, you know, partly born out of the momentum from some federal education initiatives.

CORNISH: So, looking at the situation in Chicago today, is it in any way a sort of test case? I mean, are other cities looking at the way this plays out?

SAWCHUK: I think that could very well be the case. I mean, you have the budget problems on the one hand, and then you also have policymakers who want to post reforms such as closing schools that are underperforming, evaluating teachers, all those things raise questions, not only about how much you can afford to pay teachers more, but also questions about things that have long been staples in urban teacher contracts, like seniority, job security.

And if it's perceived that the mayor succeeds in pushing through some of the things that he wants to do, it could embolden other school systems, particularly those that have mayoral control. And alternatively, if the union is perceived to have headed off some of the reforms they don't like, for example, the teacher evaluations tied to test scores, then it perhaps could embolden other unions to fight against such measures.

CORNISH: Stephen, one interesting thing about Chicago is that its former schools chief Arne Duncan was tapped President Obama to be the U.S. secretary of Education. And of course, prior to being Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel was White House chief of staff. So, how is this issue in any way tricky for Democrats to essentially be going up against teachers unions?

SAWCHUK: I don't think I can overstate enough how politically fraught this is. And you really hit the nail on the head. A lot of the ideas that they have pushed and that we've talked about, such as revamping teacher evaluations, schools closures, has been strongly supported by the Obama administration. They have not typically been labor priorities. So, it is a little bit of a Nixon-goes-to-China moment in that respect, and it is making it complicated from that perspective.

But also, keep in mind that the election is coming up. Teachers unions tend to be very important donors to Democratic candidates, particularly at the state level. And, of course, they are the boots on the ground when it comes to canvassing and things like that. So, it's definitely safe to say that this will be very, very closely watched. You know, not just by we education geeks, but by politicos, basically by anyone who has a stake in the outcome of the election.

CORNISH: Stephen Sawchuk, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SAWCHUK: Thank you.

CORNISH: Stephen Sawchuk is an assistant editor for Education Week.

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