Removing a major hurdle in the contentious contract talks, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union reached an agreement on July 24 to lengthen the school day without lengthening the workday for most teachers.

Under the agreement, the elementary school day will be extended from five hours and 45 minutes to seven hours. Mayor Rahm Emanuel originally proposed a 71/2 hour day. The high school day will be extended from seven hours to 71/2 hours.

To make up the additional school time without extending teachers’ work day, CPS agreed to hire 477 teachers to fill instructional time with music, art, foreign language and physical education classes. Those teachers will be hired from a pool of staff laid off during the past three years.

This means elementary teachers will effectively work the same number of hours, which is limited to 296 minutes each day. Non-core courses taught by newly hired teachers, lunch, and recess will fill out the seven-hour day.

High school teachers will work 14 more minutes. Four days a week students will have 46 more instructional minutes. On the fifth day they will be released 75 minutes early.

CPS officials hailed the agreement. “It guarantees that our students will have a full school day on Day One of this year. They will get more time in the classroom with their teachers, which is a gateway to boosting student achievement,” said CPS Board President David Vitale, who explained that unspecified “investments have been made to build a high quality school day that is well-rounded, with more time for reading, math, science, world languages and enrichment like arts, music and PE. And all elementary students will now have a full lunch and recess, giving them the time they need to be kids…”

But not everyone is convinced that the deal will benefit students or taxpayers.

“This potential agreement hurts Mayor Emanuel’s ambitions for reforms at CPS,” said Illinois Policy Institute Vice President of Policy Ted Dabrowski. “The way negotiations are going, he’ll get a longer school day staffed with teachers who aren’t qualified in the core subject areas, and he’ll need to come up with more than $50 million he doesn’t have. And he still faces salary negotiations with the existing teachers.” Hiring additional teachers instead will cost CPS about $50 million.

CPS currently has a $665 million deficit, and it remains uncertain where the additional funds will come from. The CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey suggested that funds for the new hires should be taken from the charter school budget. Mayor Emanuel rejected the idea saying that he is committed to maintaining parental choice, especially given the long student waiting lists.

CTU officials worry that the cash-strapped CPS may increase class sizes and fire teachers to save money. A new teacher evaluation system and health care costs are also issues the district and the teachers union have yet to work out.

A strike is also a possibility. Most Chicago schools open September 4, with a third opening as early as August 13. Talks between CPS and the CTU are scheduled for the Labor Day weekend, but teachers could still go on strike.

Statements by CTU President Karen Lewis suggest a strike is very likely. On August 6, Lewis appeared on a Madison, Wisconsin, radio program and accused Mayor Emanuel of beating up on teachers and being a “bully.” She added that CTU teachers are fighting his “tyranny.” (Starting at 3.18 minutes)

Asked whether the CTU would strike, Lewis demurred saying only that they are preparing for the possibility, but added that “we expect there to be a large contingent of people from outside of Chicago supporting and helping” if the strike goes through. (Starting at 10.42 minutes)

Even if a strike is avoided, the CPS and CTU agreement will not ease future negotiations. “This new plan doesn’t bode well for next year, when CPS will see a doubling in teacher retirement costs to levels exceeding $800 million,” according to Dabrowski. “The bottom line is this deal doesn’t benefit Chicago’s children or its taxpayers. This crisis is only beginning, and with the coffers empty at CPS, the negotiations will only get tougher.”