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Commentary: Chicago Teachers Union leaders to tell their story in Philadelphia

By Ron Whitehorne on Nov 12, 2012 12:15 PM
Photo: Flickr/Shutter Stutter

by Ron Whitehorne

The recently concluded Chicago teachers' strike has had an impact far beyond the Windy City. There are lessons to be learned that have broad relevance for teachers and all those concerned about public education here in Philadelphia, where the education crisis is similar but even more extreme than the circumstances in Chicago. 

What were some of those lessons?

  • The strike contributed to shifting the education reform conversation from a narrow focus on teacher accountability, as measured by standardized tests, to a broader discussion about poverty, institutional racism, and investing resources in urban schools.  

  • The strike challenged the notion that closing neighborhood schools in favor of opening more charters will lead to improved educational outcomes.

  • The CTU, in its messaging, dramatized the differences between the under-resourced, bare-bones instruction offered to inner-city children and the education received by affluent Chicagoans. The union characterized this system as educational apartheid.

  • By defining the central issue as the defense of public education and supporting the demands of parents, the union won an unprecedented degree of public support and demonstrated the power of a labor-community alliance.

  • The strike and the internal organizing that preceded it show that union democracy and the engagement of the rank-and-file membership can renew the power of the union. Strikes can be won, even in this hostile political environment.

Although the struggle in Chicago is inspiring, it is also instructive. The transformation of the CTU did not happen overnight. It required time, hard work, and creative tactics. The Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), which captured the leadership in 2010, is a seasoned, battle-tested group of union activists. They gained power by developing a vision of social-justice unionism, challenging the existing union leadership, and, when rebuffed, taking independent steps to implement that vision.

On Saturday, Nov. 17, three leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union will share their story and their experience in building a fighting union and a movement to defend public education. They are:

  • Michael Brunson, who as recording secretary is one of the four top elected leaders of the CTU. Brunson, an elementary teacher who has strong roots in the faith-based community, was a leader in South Side United and GEM (Grassroots Education Movement), two community organizations that have played an important role in the city.

  • Debby Pope, a recently retired high school teacher, a strike organizer, a member of the CTU House of Delegates, and a longtime labor activist.

  • Rolando Vasquez, an active teacher, a member of the House of Delegates and strike captain for his school. He will talk about the organizing work that went on at the school level to build the union into an effective strike force.

The event is sponsored by the Labor Work Group, a network of labor activists that grew out of Occupy Philly, and the Teacher Action Group (TAG) a group of social-justice-minded teachers in Philadelphia schools. Both groups believe the CTU experience can provide inspiration and direction for teachers here. They hope that the event will spur more organizing and engagement with the union, both among PFT members and unorganized charter school teachers.

From Chicago to Philly: The Fight for Public Education!
Nov. 17, 1 p.m.
Science Leadership Academy
55 N 22nd St.

For more information email or visit

The opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the author. 

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Comments (15)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 12, 2012 2:35 pm
As many people as possible need to show up for this. Jerry, are you listening??
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on November 12, 2012 3:29 pm
Great Congratulations to Chicago. However is seems the PFT has already given away most of the store. Can they actually fight anymore? OR WILL RESISTANCE CONSIST OF ASKING ITS MEMBERS TO WEAR RED IN FRIDAY? The World Wonders.
Submitted by Dan (not verified) on November 12, 2012 3:44 pm
I'll be going and I'm bringing friends. To the audience at this crucial upcoming event: we are the ones we've been waiting for. There are obstacles, to be sure, but the only thing stopping Philly from teaching and Chicago and the world about standing up for public schools is hard work and dedication.
Submitted by retired Phila teacher still caring about public education (not verified) on November 12, 2012 4:17 pm
This is important. I hope to be there Saturday.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 13, 2012 1:57 pm
philadelphia teachers need to stand up for themselves,and call a strike,or the district will continue to do this .wait till contract time in august.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 13, 2012 2:43 pm
No, we'll continue to sit back and watch ourselves being sold out. We have met the enemy and it is we.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 13, 2012 4:13 pm
But we can't strike.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 13, 2012 9:04 pm
Why does everyone say you can't strike???? Of course you can---When the contract expires, then there is no contract then it's game on!!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 13, 2012 9:44 pm
Excellent Ron!!! I think the CTU can help the PFT. Also, does anyone know when the list of schools to close will come out????
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 14, 2012 12:03 am
Jeremy & Scott made a rough draft, on the back of an envelope, of the schools they want to see closed. As soon as Pedro types it up, they'll let you see it.
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on November 14, 2012 11:20 am

The expectation is soon, before the end of the month.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 14, 2012 1:21 am
"The strike contributed to shifting the education reform conversation from a narrow focus on teacher accountability, as measured by standardized tests, to a broader discussion about poverty, institutional racism, and investing resources in urban schools." That is delusional. Maybe it has the CTU talking about this. But no one else is buying into these old excuses. There is very little sympathy in the rest of the state for Philly in general and Philly schools in particular. Does a strike help that? Talking about "institutional racism" will definitely not change that for the better. You can win over the city voters and politicians, but you'd likely help get Corbett reelected.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on November 17, 2012 11:28 pm
I think that now that some of the PA suburban schools have failed to make AYP (As I understand it, by 2014, no district will make AYP), school stakeholders in the rest of the state will start to take notice soon, if they haven't already. It won't just be a Philly problem when 100% of students, across the state, are not proficient or advanced. Where can I get information on the meeting that was held today with members of the CTU? I was out of town, and the suspense is killing me!
Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on November 18, 2012 5:12 am
Corbett's "little secret" will allow charter schools to make AYP. This year, without federal approval, the State Department of Education enabled charters to make AYP by only requiring that they make goals for groups of grades (e.g. 3 - 5, 6 - 8, 9 - 12). In Philadelphia, rather than 54% of charters making AYP less than 20% of charters would have made AYP if they had to play by the same standards as School District schools. The Allentown Morning Call reported on the issue - State changed PSSA testing rules for charter schools without federal approval Rules change appears to have inflated success rate of some charter schools. This is a quote from the story: "Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said his organization had been lobbying for the change since last year. He said the coalition estimated it would increase charter success rate by 30 percent. That's fair, he said, since some charter schools, especially cyber charter schools, have more students than some of the state's 500 school districts." "A Morning Call analysis found a higher percentage of charter schools made AYP in 2011-12 than they did in 2010-11, including 52 that had one or more grade spans that did not hit testing benchmarks. In addition, 14 charter schools that had failing grades last year moved into the passing category this year. The change meant 21st Century Cyber Charter School, with an enrollment of 746 students in sixth through 12th grade, was given a passing grade even though its 11th-graders failed to meet standards. Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School in Philadelphia made AYP because its high school grade span (11th-graders) hit targets while its middle school grade span missed because it failed to get five of six reading targets and four of six math targets. By comparison, Eyer Middle School in the East Penn School District failed to make AYP because its special education students didn't hit the testing standards."
Submitted by Ken Derstine on November 18, 2012 7:52 am
Democracy requires an informed citizenry. The Philadelphia Inquirer has only had one article (when the federal Department of Education said it would review the actions of the state Department of Education) about this manipulation of state test scores to make charter schools appear better than they are. As you stated, the Allentown Morning Call initially reported on this and has reported it many times since. I do not think it is an accident therefore that School Boards in the Lehigh Valley area are proactive in denouncing Pa. Education Secretary Tomalis. See this article in the The Morning Call: Area school boards move to denounce state education chief Bethlehem Area and Salisbury Township districts say Ron Tomalis' policies favor charters at the expense of traditional public schools.

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