SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Chicago teachers voted to end their strike this week, the first in 25 years, and came back to class. It brought an end to a heated confrontation between leaders of the Chicago teachers union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who repeated this phrase time and again during the strike.
MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: This was a strike of choice and it's a wrong choice for the children. Really, it was a choice.
SIMON: Union members will vote on whether to accept the new three-year contract about two week from now. The strike brought into sharp focus in the president's home town and in an election year some of the concerns that teachers unions across the country have had about the school reforms supported by the Obama administration and politicians in both parties, as many urban school systems try to pull out of a tailspin.
We're joined now by Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education. He's served as CEO of Chicago's public schools from 2001 to 2009. He's currently out on a bus tour in southern Virginia. Secretary Duncan, thanks for being with us.
SECRETARY ARNE DUNCAN: Hey, Scott, thanks so much for the opportunity.
SIMON: You are on the record this week as saying that everyone involved needed to, quote, "get past the egos and the politics and the ideology in this dispute." What did you mean by that? What was the egos and the ideology?
DUNCAN: Well, I obviously had great friends on every side of this - teachers, principals, children, the mayor. Obviously, for a while, you had sort of personalities at play and I always think - I always say it's like a family. When adults fight, kids lose. You can have legitimate, you know, conversations or disagreements, but when it gets personal I think that it complicates things. That's what happened here for a little while, but I just give everyone credit for getting beyond that and I think getting to a great, great outcome.
SIMON: As I suspect, I don't have to tell you, the proposed deal calls for an average 17.6 percent pay raise for teachers over four years and some benefit improvements. Cities all over the country are running out of money. The mayor has to find that money. But will this deal in Chicago make it difficult for other cities around the country with budget problems to contain the costs of public education?
DUNCAN: No. I think - I've said repeatedly around the country that I think teachers are underpaid and teachers do, you know, extraordinarily tough, you know, complex, demanding work. I know, obviously, personally, have so many good friends who are teachers in Chicago public schools, and then in some of the toughest communities in Chicago and they are literally changing lives every single day.
I think we as a country have to invest in public education and invest in our teachers and we need to continue to commit to do that.
SIMON: I mean, not to dispute that for a moment, but can you see where people around the country in these economic times wonder about an almost 18 percent pay increase on the average in a job that, after all, doesn't - isn't year around, typically?
DUNCAN: And again, I just think that the public needs to understand how hard teachers work and the best teachers are working, you know, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 hours a day. They're visiting kids in their own homes. They're not just teachers. Often, they're mentors. They're role models and I just think the best investment we can make as a country, as a nation, is in high quality education. Best investment we can make.
SIMON: Mr. Duncan, may I ask, during the strike, or the days leading up to the strike, did you consult with Mayor Emanuel and the president?
DUNCAN: I talked to lots of different people, didn't talk to the president about it. I talked to lots of people. Again, I have friends on all sides of this. My sister's kids are in the system. My brothers kids are in the system. So this was both personal and professional.
SIMON: Right. I ask because here the city of Chicago has come up with this tremendous pay package, which does raise the question, were you, the administration, Mayor Emanuel, who used to be the president's chief of staff, eager to get this story out of the news cycle?
DUNCAN: I think that had zero to do with anything. I think what we were all eager to do is to get children back into the classroom. Our children need every day, every hour, every second of being in school. They need the meals that are offered. Hardworking families need the stability of having their children in a safe place so that they can go to work each day. And my only interest - and I think frankly, again, everyone's only interest on every side of this, was to get children back in the classroom.
SIMON: When you say you recognize that teachers are underpaid, do you mean to suggest that teachers maybe in other major cities across the country should do what the Chicago teachers did and go on strike to get an almost 20 percent pay increase?
DUNCAN: Again, I think you've seen hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of districts around the country come together to support teachers and value their work and done it with less bitterness. And so I think that's the path, what I call tough-minded collaboration. When adults, whether it's in a family or a school system, I think kids lose. And when adult work through tough issues together in a collaborative way, in a civil way, can work through very contentious issues, I think that's the example of how to get stuff done that is so critically important.
SIMON: What one or two things would you want to accomplish over the next four years if the president's re-elected?
DUNCAN: There are a number of things. We want to continue to see dropout rates go down. We want to continue to see our high school graduates be college and career ready. I continue to...
SIMON: If I may interrupt you, I mean, I would like to see the Cubs win the World Series. What I meant is what would you be in a position to do with your own hands over the next four years?
DUNCAN: Well, I - we're all in this together so it's not just what I can do. What we have to do is we need to continue to invest in early childhood education. It's the best investment we can make. That's a long term play, but hugely important. We have to continue to invest in K to 12 reform and then ultimately, four years from now, I want us to be at a much higher point on these international comparisons in terms of college graduation rates. That's what I want to be held accountable for. That's the North Star of our work.
SIMON: Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, speaking with us on a bus tour in southern Virginia. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for your time.
DUNCAN: All right. Thanks so much for the opportunity. Have a great day now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.