The Chicago Teachers Union strike could end as early as tomorrow. Both sides reported progress in yesterday’s bargaining session, and hopes are high that today’s session will complete whatever outstanding issues exist. Since strikes are technically confined to bargaining issues like pay and benefits, we only have the barest sketch of the emerging deal.

The progress was reported after Chicago Public Schools officials presented a revised contract proposal to the union on Tuesday and it was reviewed and discussed during talks Wednesday.

Under the proposal, teacher raises would be structured differently, as requested by the union; evaluations of tenured teachers during the first year could not result in dismissal; later evaluations could be appealed; and health insurance rates would hold steady if the union agreed to take part in a wellness program.

The new proposal also removes the district’s ability to rescind raises because of an economic crisis. The board stripped teachers of a 4 percent raise last year, sparking union distrust of the mayor.

One sticking point here is that paying for the raises, which should add up to around 16% over a four year time frame, could come at the cost of shutting down as many as 120 schools, even while the district plans to open 60 charter schools that hire non-union, low-paid teachers. This is clearly on the minds of the Chicago Teachers Union which has suffered under an inequitable funding mechanism for years. Illinois school funding is among the worst in the nation, forcing the localities to rely on their own property tax bases, which really separates the funding levels between the higher-income and lower-income areas. This leads to the problems at the center of the dispute, including crumbling buildings, a lack of textbooks and libraries, no art or physical education classes, and no air conditioning, forcing oversized classes to sit in 98-degree heat in the summer months.

Perhaps the two sides have found a way to compromise on all of this, and we’ll get the teachers back to school tomorrow. But this has been a very valuable turn of events. It represented one of the first challenges to the rightward drift in education policy in America, and it exposed the clear biases of the media and the Democratic establishment. Nick Kristof positing a confrontational relationship between students and unions is only one good example.

Some have tried to psychoanalyze this hatred for teachers emanating from the corridors of power. I don’t think that’s totally necessary. We need only look at the facts underlying the drive to close so-called “failing” schools and reopen them as charters, or to fire “bad” teachers, to figure this all out.

Chicago schools have been a petri dish for school reform for nearly two decades. Beginning in 1995, they came under tight mayor control, and Mayor Richard Daley appointed his budget director, Paul Vallas, to run the schools; Vallas set out to raise test scores, open magnet schools and charter schools, and balance the budget. When Vallas left to run for governor (unsuccessfully), Daley selected another non-educator, Arne Duncan, who was Vallas’s deputy and a strong advocate of charter schools. Vallas had imposed reform after reform, and Duncan added even more. Duncan called his program Renaissance 2010, with the goal of closing low-performing schools and opening one hundred new schools [...]

This is the vision that Washington now supports, and that the Chicago school board, appointed by current mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, endorses: more school closings, more privately managed schools, more testing, merit pay, longer school hours. But in Chicago itself, where these reforms started, most researchers agree that the results have been mixed at best. There has been no renaissance. After nearly twenty years of reform, the schools of Chicago remain among the lowest performing in the nation.

The Chicago Teachers Union has a different vision: it wants smaller classes, more social workers, air-conditioning in the sweltering buildings where summer school is conducted, and a full curriculum, with teachers of arts and foreign languages in every school. Some schools in Chicago have more than forty students in a class, even in kindergarten. There are 160 schools without libraries; more than 40 percent have no teachers of the arts.

This gets very short shrift among those inclined to the bulldoze/reopen crowd, and when it does it’s dismissed as too costly (as if creating 60 charters from scratch is all that cheap). But smaller classes and a better curriculum has been a touchstone of a quality education over the last century. And there is a large pot of money in the form of Tax Increment Financing that could put a down payment on these changes, at the very least creating a learning environment and work conditions that aren’t downright hazardous. But that money has been shifted away to Hyatt Hotels.

The Chicago Teachers Union stood up to the privatization school reform agenda in ways that startled the powers that be. They appear to have gotten the attention of the Chicago school board, however, and the compromise settlement of the strike could give the teachers, and teachers around the country, a fighting chance.