Urban school districts across America are grappling with how to improve their education quality while also cutting programs to fix their massive budget deficits. In Illinois, the failure to win a $400 million Race to the Top grant exacerbated the problem because well-intentioned but expensive reform laws were passed but not funded. The perfect educational storm may be brewing in Chicago: A $720 district shortfall; a shrewd, fiscally minded new mayor; an aggressive reformer as the new schools chief; and a critically outspoken union president charged with representing 32,000 teachers.
To address the budget gap, CPS chief Jean-Claude Brizard and the Mayor Rahm Emanuel's newly appointed school board voted in June to rescind the teachers' 4-percent raise in the union contract. Then, Brizard offered waivers for individual schools to by-pass their collective bargaining agreement and extend their school day by 90 minutes for a 2 percent raise and a lump sum to the school. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis called the move illegal, but 13 schools broke rank with the union and agreed to extend their school day. The CTU filed a complaint with Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, which unanimously sided with the union. The Illinois attorney general was poised to sue the district to force the 13 schools to revert to their old dismissal time in the middle of the school year. Some parent groups, politicians, and Op-Ed writers accused the CTU of standing in the way of student learning. On Nov. 4, however, the CTU announced that it had reached an agreement with CPS: The union wouldn't take any further legal action if the district agreed to stop offering waivers to schools. But that didn't stop Brizard and Emanuel from offering money to 42 charter schools in the district to extend their day.
Calling Brizard's comprehensive reform agenda controversial is an understatement. He will have to endure bitter contract negotiations with Lewis, who has publicly called Brizard a puppet of Mayor Emanuel and a political figure more than an educational leader. Brizard, however, has taken a much more diplomatic tone when talking about Lewis and her union. Below is an excerpt of an interview that I conducted with him this month.
Teachers Unions: Friend or Foe?
Rhames: You've been in Chicago for a few months now, I'd like your opinion on how the Chicago Teachers Union has impacted education reform. Has it had a positive or negative impact?
Brizard: I can't talk historically, but I can say that for me so far it remains to be seen ... This issue of a longer day is an indication of a much bigger issue we need to address. But I think the CTU in many ways needs to move in terms of thinking about what a lot of teachers want. I was glad that yesterday we were able to come to a resolution about the longer school day [this school year] because I think we have other issues to talk about.
For instance, the way we pay teachers. I really want to flip that paradigm to go to where I think this generation of teachers wants us to go to, which is pay based on a career ladder—meaning leadership, teacher leader, mentor teacher, etc.—market factors—meaning if you are teaching in a hard to staff area that you that you will get paid more or if you chose to work in a very difficult environment like turnaround schools teachers should be paid accordingly—and at the same time performance should be a part of teacher pay.
And at the same time, too, I do believe in setting floors along the way to make sure there's a minimum pay that a particular teacher would make. For example there's a floor at 5 years, one at 10 years, one at 15 years, and at 20 years maybe. But not giving steps every year, but floors at critical junctures in a teacher's life. [This would be] giving them agency, giving them control over their salaries. The same thing that is happening in private industries.
Rhames: Can you elaborate a little more on "market factors"?
Brizard: For instance, I don't have the data on Chicago, but in New York certain kinds of licenses were easy to find, but special ed math, or English Language Learner, or physics was much more difficult to find. So how do you incentivize someone who may have other kinds of options other than being a special ed math teacher or incentivize someone to go back and get that license where there's a shortage for it. So whatever the market demands in terms of the need for the district, we should be able to pay extra for that.
Rhames: What is your philosophy in terms of how to deal with the teacher's union? Is your approach "We need to have a partnership with the union and we need to work everything out through this partnership"? Or is it, "This is what I think is best for children and I'm going to push for this, with or without the union support"?
Brizard: It's a complex question ... The bottom line is that it has to be about kids. The one thing I will say about the CTU is that once we agree it's about the kids—let's agree that's the goal—and then we can argue about how we are going to get there. So I really believe in collaboration. I think I score really high on collaboration, although I've been accused at times of not being collaborative, especially in Rochester.
Rhames: Right, because the teacher's union in Rochester gave you a no-confidence vote.
Brizaard: That was my fight with actually one person—Adam Urbanski—the leader of the teachers union there, who, by the way has been there for 30 years and in my opinion has done nothing for the school district.
But when you look at my history in New York City it was very different. It was very collaborative with the union. In fact, I still talk to Randi Weingarten [president of the American Federation of Teachers] and I still talk to Mike Mulgrew—Mike runs the New York City teachers union—and we still talk a lot about different issues. So I tend to be very cooperative.
At the same time, too, if there's something that's hurting kids, I'm going to push and I'm going to push very hard. So sometimes I really believe you have to lead people into decision-making. I am not a bull in a china shop. I am not a dictator. But when I see kids getting hurt, I am not going to be silent, either. So I do believe in collaboration. I think it's the way to go. The CTU has to be a partner in the work that we do, but at the same time I'm not going to negotiate my core values and I will not negotiate the needs of our kids with anyone.
Rhames: Do you think that sometimes the teachers' needs and the students' needs are in conflict with each other?
Brizard: No. I think that sometimes the union's needs and the kids' needs sometimes clash. I do believe, at my core, that teachers really care about what kids need, and teachers' values match that very, very well. What I often find is that what comes out of the union leadership tends to be at odds, or perhaps appear to be at odds, with what kids [need].
Let me give you an example, this longer school day piece, right? So initially when you listen to the union, it appeared that they were not worried about kids. But if you talk to individual union leaders, they do care about what's going on with kids. But somehow what comes out doesn't sound like that, which is the reason why I say I believe in collaboration. I believe we all want the same thing, but I need for us to argue about how we get there verses the need to get there. When we listened to the union's push it was about "Well, we don't need a longer school day," but meanwhile the union also said, "What about 75 more minutes" [as opposed to 90 minutes]. It was a contradiction. But if you sit with Karen Lewis individually, you honestly hear someone who really cares about kids, someone who really believes you have to do what's right for kids. So let's argue over the "how" and not the "what."
Rhames: Do you believe that teachers unions are necessary for a strong checks and balances type of system?
Brizard: Yes. I do believe in unions. I believe they have to exist, and I believe most teachers want them to exist. Sometimes I think they are out of touch with their rank and file; they are out of touch with what teachers want. But definitely they have to exist. I welcome their voice. I welcome them as partners in the work that we do. I want them at the table, which is why I'm so desperate to get Karen Lewis and the [union] leadership to be apart of the longer school day planning. I mean they represent 25,000 teachers—I need them there.
Rhames: But the union leadership has refused to join the Longer School Day committee so far.
Brizard: So far Karen Lewis has said no, but I'm hoping after what happened yesterday [the CTU-CPS agreement to halt legal action and waivers], that we will turn the chapter, and she'll say yes. I'm meeting with her next week and I hope that we'll get there. I do need her there and I want her voice.
Education Reform on Over Drive
Rhames: You are widely regarded as an aggressive school reformer who tries to get thing done fast, one who is not very fond of pilot programs. Next year you're looking at implementing three huge initiatives: Extending the school day citywide, new Common Core Standards, and rolling out the new teacher evaluation matrix.
B rizard: And principal evaluations--the beginning of a new portfolio. If you only knew. There are so many different things we are working on.
Rhames: What are your specific strategies on how to make sure each effort is a success?
Next week: Stay tuned to read the final installment of my interview with Brizard. In it, he will discuss why he is so "impatient" and who his role models are in the education reform arena. Click here to read Part 1.
Photo provided by Chicago Public Schools