Behind the Chicago Teachers Strike emailed the following article by Theresa Moran ( Chicago teachers went on strike September 10 to demand smaller classes, much-needed student services, and stability for a profession that’s battling a corporate takeover. Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) president, said with regret that the union had no choice. “We must do things differently in this city if we’re going to provide students with the education they so rightfully deserve,” she said.


With throngs of red-shirted union members flanking the doors, CTU officers emerged from the union office at 10 PM to announce the strike, which came after nine months of contentious negotiations with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board. Not a half hour before, school board President David Vitale was visibly shaking as he announced that talks had broken down. CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey made clear, however, that for the union, it wasn’t about money in teachers’ pockets. Sharkey cited, in particular, a new evaluation process that could cause 28 percent of teachers to lose their jobs within two years. Illinois passed a new teacher evaluation law in 2010 to qualify for federal Race to the Top education funds. CTU says the evaluations place too much emphasis on standardized tests, which are an unreliable and narrow measure of a student’s progress, and are tied to a systematic privatization of public schools.


Recall rights for teachers displaced by school closures is another of the union’s top priorities, though not an issue they’re able to strike over. By law, the teachers can only walk out over unfair labor practices or mandatory subjects of bargaining like wages or health benefits. Bargaining improved in recent weeks, the union said, with the city withdrawing its attempt to institute merit pay, reinstating some scheduled raises based on education and experience, and annual raises each year of the four-year deal instead of the initial proposal for a one-time 2 percent bump. CTU said the city offered 3 percent the first year and 2 percent each following year.


More important than economics or the teacher evaluations, said Sharkey, are “pedagogical issues” like small class sizes; a curriculum of language, art, music, and physical education for all students; and nursing and social-work services inside schools to address the many needs that poor students bring to the schoolhouse—and that hurt academic performance when unaddressed.


While teachers raised issues from evaluations to school privatization to class size to explain why they backed the strike, they were in solid agreement on one thing: public education in Chicago is not working and Mayor Emanuel is making things worse. English teacher Keith Plum says he’s sick of teaching to the test. “It’s always some big corporation selling a canned curriculum that’s never been tested,” he said, adding that he was told he’d be punished if he deviated from the curriculum’s script. Plum recalls a sophomore who, three weeks into the school year, raised her hand to ask, “When are going to do some real English work?”


Emanuel and the school board say the best way to deal with struggling public schools is to close them or turn them over to private charter operators. The problem they see isn’t a lack of resources or a “drill-and-kill” test- based curriculum, but bad teachers. The solution is to use students’ standardized test scores to identify—and then get rid of— both schools and teachers who are “failing.” Job protections like tenure and seniority rights, to education privatizers, are roadblocks on the path to wiping out public schools.


The corporate plan for education is not just about ideology, however. It’s also about money. Charter schools can be lucrative investment opportunities, and glitzy new charters are placed in gentrifying neighborhoods, serving as a magnet for newcomers while excluding local children. Eliminating job protections and evaluating teachers based on student test scores is also about saving money, says high school teacher Adam Heenan, “designed to make teachers cheap” by firing experienced educators. Another money-saving move is alternative teacher certification programs like Teach for America that guarantee a steady supply of brand- new teachers, trained for just a few weeks before they’re in front of a class. Most leave the job after a few years.


Lewis says the revolving door of teachers is bad for kids, who often have chaotic home lives plagued by hunger, homelessness, and violence. “Job security is stability for our students,” she argued. The union singles out poverty as one of the biggest roadblocks to academic achievement. CTU has insistently pointed to disparities within the city, particularly the lack of resources in schools serving low-income Black and Latino students. The union says 160 schools have no library, and many lack playgrounds. Problems in the schools themselves, the union argues, can be solved by fully funding them, providing a rich curriculum and the wraparound services students need. Class size matters, too. Kindergarten and first-grade classrooms in Chicago are bigger than those in 95 percent of all Illinois schools, according to the CTU’s research.


The strike has been “a long time coming,” Heenan said. 


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