September 11 — 2:37 pm, 2012

Commentary: What’s at stake in the Chicago teachers strike?

Twenty-five thousand Chicago teachers, members of the Chicago Teachers Union, are on strike. 

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel portrays the action as “a strike of choice” that victimizes parents and children. Union president Karen Lewis responds that they hoped to avoid a strike but the actions of Emanuel and the Board of Education left them little choice.

This is not an ordinary strike, but a confrontation between two competing visions of what public schools need.  

As in Philadelphia, an underfunded, deficit-ridden school district is pressing for “reforms” that it claims will improve education, namely a longer school day, teacher evaluations that rely significantly on students’ standardized test scores, and rolling back job-security protections.  

As in Philadelphia, the Chicago school board has closed schools, cut instructional and support services, and turned over schools to charter organizations and private interests.

In the current contract talks, the CTU has made improving public schools a cutting-edge issue, calling for smaller class size, more nurses, counselors and librarians, expanded art and music instruction, and more. All the things that Rahm Emanuel’s children get at the private school they attend. CTU leaders contend that all children deserve these things, and that is what the strike is about.

Illinois lawmakers over the years have restricted the scope of bargaining and recently thought they had eliminated the right to strike by passing a law requiring 75 percent of the membership to vote to authorize a strike. The CTU has responded by making their contract campaign about “what students deserve.” Ninety percent of their members voted to authorize a strike, an unprecedented showing of solidarity.

The current CTU leadership is rooted in CORE, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. Before winning leadership in 2010, CORE organized alliances with parents and the community over school closings. The union has a 10-point program and a 46-page report that calls for comprehensive reforms that could transform public education. The group’s vision is in stark contrast to the school privatization and austerity program marketed by corporate school reformers.   Some high points are:

Lower class size. Chicago has one of the largest class sizes in the state, and Rahm Emanuel has threatened to increase class size to 55. The union, along with many advocates, argues that lower class size will bolster student learning.

Educate the whole child – Fund libraries, gym, the arts, and a rich curriculum, as well as early childhood education for all, robust wraparound services and improved services for special needs students.

Address the racial and class inequity in the system – The CTU characterizes the racial and economic segregation that pervades the system, along with the harsh discipline policies in high-poverty schools, as “apartheid-like.”

Treat teachers as professionals with appropriate compensation, time for collaboration, and greater autonomy. 

Partner with parents. The union calls for parents to be respected as partners at every level including school decision making. CTU calls for “renewed support and respect for” Local School Councils.

Full funding. CTU believes there is no excuse for failing to fund schools. It has challenged the Board of Education’s claims that there is no money.

The CTU has made this point in the streets. This spring, 4,000 union members joined thousands more supporters who marched on Chicago’s Mercantile Exchange to protest the $77 million-a-year subsidy the derivatives market receives from the state.  The union has also cited the $250 million in tax dollars pumped into development projects that primarily serve downtown corporate and business interests as potential revenues to close the $665 million budget deficit. The union’s program includes demands for ending corporate subsidies and tax loopholes, and a progressive formula for allotting state aid.

The corporate media has focused on money as the issue and, of course, money is never absent from any contract negotiation.   The board rescinded a 4 percent raise last year and seeks to cut benefits. However, according to CTU President Karen Lewis, the two sides were very close to agreeing on compensation, but she also insists that action on a range of issues related to education needs to be addressed.

Job security is clearly a critical issue. The state’s new teacher evaluation law could cost 28 percent of teachers their jobs within the next two years, according to CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey. The fate of teachers in schools slated for closing is another major issue.

Although cynics will dismiss the reform platform of the CTU as window dressing for teachers pursuing their own narrow interests, others, myself included, will argue that the CTU understands that its fate is bound up with the fight of Chicago’s working class and oppressed communities for equal education. 

Philadelphia’s school crisis has its own unique characteristics, but the core issues are largely the same. The SRC, advised by the Boston Consulting Group and supported by local corporate interests, wants to blame teachers and unions for the problems that our schools face while they continue to slash the budget and privatize schools, targeting low-income communities of color.  

We can learn from the struggle in Chicago. Our union can learn from the way the CTU has organized from the ground up, creating a broad, democratic structure. All of us, parents, students, community activists and educators, can learn from the persistent activism of the labor-community alliance in Chicago. The school reform program advocated by the union can inform our efforts to develop an alternative to the SRC-Corbett plan. 

For all these reasons we need to demonstrate support for the CTU, and we need to follow their example.

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