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Associated Press
Chicago public school teachers walk a picket line Tuesday on the second day of a strike in the nation’s third-largest school district.

Chicago’s school shadow

Chicago might be light-years away in terms of politics, but the issues that sparked a strike by the teachers union there are as close as the nearest schoolhouse. Indiana teachers are watching. And politicians who proposed and backed vast changes in Indiana schools, as well as their allies in education, should take note as well.

Evaluations tied to student test performance, class size, job security and more are at the heart of the Chicago dispute and at the center of a national education debate. Are teachers professionals who know the needs of their students and deserve the respect and compensation afforded to professionals? Or are they public workers who can be easily replaced?

Indiana teachers can empathize with their Chicago counterparts, at least. All public school teachers in Indiana will be evaluated on student performance, effective this year.

Legislation approved in 2011 limits collective bargaining rights. Approval of a sweeping voucher program and charter-school expansion has reduced enrollment and, in turn, union membership in traditional public schools.

Indiana teachers protested the legislative changes, but lacked the political clout of the Chicago Teachers Union. Teacher strikes are illegal in Indiana; not in Illinois.

Al Jacquay, president of the Fort Wayne Education Association, said the Chicago union appeared to be backed into a corner.

“It seems like they were not being treated fairly,” he said. “It’s frightening; there’s no seniority. Things that people were accustomed to have changed. They are frightened for their mortgages, for their livelihoods.”

Jacquay, who represents teachers at Fort Wayne Community Schools, noted that his members were among the first to be evaluated under the first-year pilot program guidelines, with fewer teachers facing contract non-renewal than in past years. But the Fort Wayne union enjoys an unusually strong working relationship with district officials.

Chicago’s impasse came not over salary issues, but over Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “reform” agenda, including evaluation procedures, increased authority for principals in hiring and a weakened seniority system. (Indiana public school districts are self-governing, while in Chicago, the mayor has power to oversee the schools.).

Class sizes, particularly at the early-elementary level, have steadily grown.

An analysis found Chicago schools had the fifth-largest kindergarten and first-grade class sizes among 480 Illinois school districts. One Chicago third-grade classroom had 42 students.

About 42 percent of the city’s 400,000 public school students are black and 87 percent are from low-income households, according to district figures.

Chicago is the only Illinois district whose union is prohibited from bargaining over class size, as the result of a 1995 law. The union can bargain over the impact of class size but not the actual class size.

Holding teachers responsible for achievement while weakening their ability to make a difference has inevitably led to the standoff. And teachers just across the state line are feeling the same pressure.

“I think there are a lot of Indiana teachers thinking, ‘It’s about time someone stood up and complained,’ ” said Steve Brace, the local representative for the Indiana State Teachers Association. “You’ve got a lot of teachers who are saying, ‘You are going to hold me responsible for things I can’t control.’ ”

Chicago teachers will most likely lose the public-relations battle if the strike stretches on for long, but they’ve clearly pushed responsibility for school achievement to the mayor and district officials.

Along with so-called education reformers in Indiana and elsewhere, they soon will have to show they can improve schools and find qualified teachers willing to work with responsibility over much outside their classrooms and without basic job security.