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Biggest losers of Chicago's teachers strike? The students, critic says

As the dust settles on Chicago's first teachers strike in 25 years, one critic says the biggest loser of the labor standoff is the students.

"This is not the big shake up this school district needed," said Kristina Rasmussen, executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. "It goes back to the same system with kids being trapped in schools with little recourse. The students are the big losers."

Rasmussen said several issues that helped lay the groundwork for the strike remain: Most students in Chicago public schools are struggling academically, performing poorly on standardized tests and failing to graduate from high school.


School reformers cheered Mayor Rahm Emanuel's push for longer school days and greater teacher accountability, with job security being tied to student achievement. But teachers were able to soften the review system a bit, while also securing raises and maintaining a decent level of job security.

Chicago strike reveals a broken system

"In his fight with the teachers, he still ends up with a better-functioning school day," said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

But Rasmussen believes Emanuel didn't push hard enough.

"He has an opportunity to be a great champion of education reform, but not if he approaches future battles with the same timidity," Rassmussen said.

The proposed contract includes a 7 percent salary increase over three years and a deal where 30 percent of teacher evaluations are based on test scores. While principals will retain hiring power, one-half of new hires must come from a pool of laid-off teachers.

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Emanuel has brushed off questions on how the district plans to pay for the new deal, pointing out “this contract, unlike past, is more frugal than past and yet it ensures that we invest in children.”

The new contract, according to the mayor will add $75 million to the $665 million deficit for the current year. Faced with a $1 billion budget deficit for fiscal 2014, the cash-strapped school system will have to make deeper cuts, including staff positions and closing low-enrollment schools to meet the contract's financial demands, according to NBC Chicago.

Chicago's clash came during a time of heated debate nationwide over how to improve public schools. Democrats and Republicans have blasted unions, as they face steady declines in membership, for backing the status quo.

But during the strike, opinion polls showed most parents and Chicago voters backed teachers and the union, with some parents and students joining rallies and picket lines. The mayor found public favor for his educational reforms, according to local media reports.

"He tried to show that he's tough, and on the side of the school kids and concerned with the parents, which played well," said University of Illinois political science professor Dick Simpson.

Supporters rushed to Emanuel's defense.

"We needed the longer day, we needed more accountability in the schools,” Danny Solis, a Chicago alderman, told NBC Chicago. “The mayor set the tone, it was hard fought.”

Education Reform Now, a group involved in the school reform movement, funded an advertising campaign on television to highlight the mayor's victories in the labor dispute. The ads aired Wednesday morning, claiming the mayor’s successful campaign for change.

Analysts say one figure whose profile was raised by the strike is Karen Lewis, the veteran chemistry teacher, Dartmouth College graduate and new union boss who led the union out on strike, the largest since Detroit public school teachers marched in 2006. 

“She is a creation of the moment and the experience has created a much stronger and forceful Karen Lewis,” Bruno said. "There were tense times and profanity thrown around, but in the end she can thank Rahm every night for making her shine in and through this."

NBCChicago.com's Mary Ann Ahern contributed to this report.

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