The battle over the future of public education in the city of Chicago is in many ways a precursor of the battles we will have nationwide should our approach to public education not shift dramatically and soon.
But unlike some other labor battles, the battle over contracts between the city and the Chicago teacher’s union is not just a battle over pay and benefits. This one is a battle over vision. The teachers union is fighting for education quality and education equality, and in the context of our public school kids, they may be some of the last ones doing so.
In short, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the district is pushing to a model of teacher evaluation based on standardized test scores akin to the unmitigated failure of “No Child Left Behind” that left destroyed many urban public school systems already struggling with structural inequalities. And in earlier efforts to break unions, the city mandated that a 2/3 vote was needed to call for a strike while continuing efforts to cut services for kids close schools, and fire support staff.
Still, the teachers voted with 98% to authorize a strike if negotiations broke down. And when they did, so the strike began.
Despite claims by Emanuel’s administration that teachers rejected a 19% pay raise, the facts show otherwise. In 2011, Emanuel took away the 4% raise teachers were scheduled to receive, citing financial need. Later it was discovered that he shifted that money to the Chicago Police instead.
And that dynamic, of education versus public safety is everything that is wrong in the framing of the debate. Chicago is in the midst of a teen gun violence crisis and its public schools are falling apart. These are not competing interests, but part of the same problem.
One Chicago teacher puts it better than I ever could:
When you make me cram 30-50 kids in my classroom with no air conditioning so that temperatures hit 96 degrees, that hurts our kids.
When you lock down our schools with metal detectors and arrest brothers for play fighting in the halls, that hurts our kids.
When you take 18-25 days out of the school year for high stakes testing that is not even scientifically applicable for many of our students, that hurts our kids.
When you spend millions on your pet programs, but there’s no money for school level repairs, so the roof leaks on my students at their desks when it rains, that hurts our kids.
When you unilaterally institute a longer school day, insult us by calling it a “full school day” and then provide no implementation support, throwing our schools into chaos, that hurts our kids.
When you support Mayor Emanuel’s TIF program in diverting hundreds of millions of dollars of school funds into to the pockets of wealthy developers like billionaire member of your school board, Penny Pritzker so she can build more hotels, that not only hurts kids, but somebody should be going to jail.
The teachers are fighting for the vital programs that their students need and learning conditions that allow them to thrive all the while trying to make sure they can provide a modest existence for their own families. More importantly, they’re fighting for the future of these kids and the tradition of education as the great equalizer preached by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Photo from union person via flickr.