Spread the word!

September 2012

Chicago Strike Ends

 
The Great Chicago Teacher's Strike of 2012, after one week, is over. Or as the business press put it, "finally" over.

Via Reuters:

Chicago public school teachers voted on Tuesday to end their strike and resume classes in the third-largest U.S. school district, ending a confrontation with Mayor Rahm Emanuel that focused national attention on struggling urban schools.

Some 800 union delegates representing the 29,000 teachers and support staff in Chicago Public Schools voted overwhelmingly to resume classes on Wednesday after more than two hours of debate.

"I am so thrilled that people are going back," Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said. "Everybody is looking forward to seeing their kids tomorrow."

Lewis, an outspoken former high school chemistry teacher, said the entire membership of the union will cast a formal vote in the next two weeks to ratify a new contract agreement.

The delegates ended the strike on their second attempt, having decided on Sunday to continue the walkout for two more days so they could review details of a proposed three-year contract with Emanuel.

Emanuel had to retreat from a proposal to introduce merit pay for teachers and he promised teachers that at least half of all new hires in the district would be from union members laid off by the closing of schools.

CTU has posted a handy summary guide to the biggest changes in the proposed contract. 

The way this strike ended must be considered a victory, at least these days. The idea of unionized employees going out on strike and not being beaten is so far off our cultural radar, even modest concessions from Chicago Public Schools is something worth shouting from the rooftops.

Especially notable was the fact that the teachers ended the strike on their own terms. They could have struck longer if they wanted to — at the very least until the votes were in from all teachers — but CTU's House of Delegates knew when to end on a high note. Majorities of both the Chicago public and Chicago parents supported the strike, and they were smart to keep it that way.

Rahm may have gotten his teacher evaluation system (or at least a small part of it), but CTU got a clear and unambiguous victory. And given what a victory means for all of us, in these dark days of reaction and austerity, Rahm and those like him just lost a hell of a lot more than they realize.

A union goes on strike, and doesn't get blown to smithereens, literally or figuratively?

I could get used to this.

Share this photo on Facebook!

Thank Chicago Teachers!

Chicago teachers strike! Here are the facts, and why this is bigger than Chicago

Today, teachers across the Chicago Public Schools system are on strike: almost 30,000 staffers from almost 700 schools. After months of stalled negotiations with CPS bigwigs, the time came to take to the streets. (Check out this fascinating account of the CTU's House of Delegates meeting last month, at which they voted unanimously to authorize a strike.) At stake is not just whether our teachers will be paid fairly — which is itself very important — but it's also whether students will learn in the schools and classrooms they deserve. Just like last year's protests in Wisconsin weren't just about Wisconsin, teachers in Chicago are taking a stand for all teachers: the corporate assault on public education is taking place everywhere.

Chicago is also important politically and symbolically. It's the home turf of the White House's two biggest charter and standardized testing proponents: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama. Before Duncan took his post at the DOE, he was CEO (fitting title) of Chicago Public Schools, and led the charge in gutting local school board democracy and the imposition of unaccountable charter schools (in many cases carving out entire wings of public school buildings to be used by these charter groups). And, of course, the Mayor is Rahm Emanuel: the patron saint of the right-wing "Blue Dog Democrats" in Congress, and known for hurling verbal abuse at any progressive group that doesn't toe the official Democratic line.

Rahm's agenda is a familiar one for those who have been following where the billions in ed "reform" money have been flowing: privatize everything that isn't nailed down, and then privatize that stuff too. From parks to parking lots, and everything in between. 

The Chicago Teacher's Union has new leadership, just a few years old, that ran for election on an insurgent, rank-and-file oriented platform. With that new leadership came an increase in on- and off-work actions, including ongoing protests of the Mayor's agenda. And the strike has historically massive approval: almost 90% of all CTU members voted Yes for the strike. This comes as a particularly humorous blow to Jonah Edelman, who last year at the Aspen Institute bragged about how he crippled the CTU by (among other things) forcing them to accept a rule change that established 75% as the threshold for a strike. "The union cannot strike in Chicago," he said. "They will never be able to muster the 75 percent threshold needed to strike."

Oops.

Chicago Teachers on Strike!

Despite the overwhelming support for the strike among teachers, millions of dollars of anti-union money is already rolling, with the help of corporate newspaper, TV, and radio outlets. It's all the more important that we establish some basic facts about this particular fight. I'll be updating this list.

The Facts

Classroom size: the school district wants to remove the caps on classroom sizes from the contract. They say that the caps exist elsewhere, but that also means they could increase it without teacher input. Some teachers are reporting up to 42 students in a classroom. [Source] [Source]

Evaluations based on standardized tests: This fall is supposed to mark the beginning of teacher evaluations which take "student growth" into account, which is to say, their performance on standardized tests. Everyone who's looked at the data (or hell, taken a standardized test) can see what an irredeemably flawed system this is. [Source] [Source] 

Air conditioning in classrooms(!): Most Chicago school classrooms have no air conditioning, which makes teaching during summer months particularly painful, and makes the likelihood of actual learning going on practically zero. As one teacher puts it, "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." GOP claims aside, global climate change is only going to make things worse — Chicago just experienced its hottest summer on record. [Source] [Source]

Compensation: CPS offered only a 2% raise for the next four years (after Rahm nixed their scheduled 4% raise last year). Yesterday, CPS reportedly acceded to a 16% raise over four years, but I'm hearing conflicting rumors about this. [Source]

(Part of the problem with getting an accurate picture of contract issues is that negotiations are going on in private, so there isn't a working draft we can look at or analyze.)

But let's be clear: issues du jour aside, we should keep our eyes trained on the larger forces at work here. The education "reforms" that CPS and most politicians on the left and right are proposing are at the forefront of the attack on what remains of our public infrastructure. Eager to find ways to turn a profit on everything they see, the ultra-rich — from Wall Street bankers to Fortune 500 CEOs — have their eyes trained on public schools. I have issues with how traditional public schooling is set up, particularly in how they are run and managed, but the "reforms" being rammed down our throats only make those issues worse. A world where all public funds are funneled to private gains is their vision. Those of us who don't happen to have bank accounts in the Caymans or summer homes in the Hamptons would do well to consider ourselves as much a target of these attacks as the countless teachers who are struggling, both to stay in the middle class and provide their students with a decent education.

Things to do:


UPDATE: Check out this discussion at Democracy Now!, which looks at the Chicago strike in the context of Obama's larger ed reform crusade:

DNC and RNC Education Platforms: from Bad to Worse

Now that the Democrats and Republicans have both released their 2012 party platforms, I took a look at each party's education planks (with stiff drink firmly in hand). Here's a bit of preliminary analysis.

The first thing that struck me was just how little was actually written on the Democratic side. Sure, substance is not just about word count (though the GOP's plank is 65% longer), but the difference is notable.

It's mostly touting Obama's reforms, and is very light on details for what a second term would hold from either the President or Congress. In their defense, incumbent parties usually take up a lot of space talking about their policy wins — the GOP did that in 2004, but their education plank then was more than twice as long as today's Dem plank.

Some of the Dem plank's internal contradictions are staggering. Here's their description of Race to the Top — which is an exercise in arm-twisting to all but force states to drastically expand charter schools, testing, and "merit" pay — cloaked in opposite words, like "flexibility."

President Obama and the Democrats are committed to working with states and communities so they have the flexibility and resources they need to improve elementary and secondary education in a way that works best for students. To that end, the President challenged and encouraged states to raise their standards so students graduate ready for college or career and can succeed in a dynamic global economy. Forty-six states responded, leading groundbreaking reforms that will deliver better education to millions of American students. 

And I was a bit surprised that they doubled down on what was probably the dumbest idea they proposed to tackle spiraling tuition costs:

President Obama has pledged to encourage colleges to keep their costs down by reducing federal aid for those that do not...

I tackled this ridiculous idea back when he proposed in in January. The idea is that colleges who can't keep tuition below the rate of inflation will face a cut federal aid (it's not clear if that's direct institutional aid, or aid to students who go there). It's a cousin of the equally ridiculous policy in many states that punishes low-performing K12 schools by cutting funding.

But often, the difference between Dem and GOP planks is merely one of tone:

GOP: Rigid tenure systems based on the “last in, first out” policy should be replaced with a merit-based approach that can attract fresh talent and dedication to the classroom. 
Dem: This includes raising standards for the programs that prepare our teachers, recognizing and rewarding good teaching, and retaining good teachers. We also believe in carefully crafted evaluation systems that give struggling teachers a chance to succeed and protect due process if another teacher has to be put in the classroom.

GOP: New systems of learning are needed to compete with traditional four-year colleges: expanded community colleges and technical institutions, private training schools, online universities, life-long learning, and work-based learning in the private sector.
Dem (2008 platform): At community colleges and training programs across the country, we will invest in short-term accelerated training and technical certifications for the unemployed and under-employed to speed their transition to careers in high-demand occupations and emerging industries. [...] We support education delivery that makes it possible for non-traditional students to receive support and encouragement to obtain a college education, including Internet, distance education, and night and weekend programs.

As a result, we see the Democratic platform is simply a mild-mannered version of the GOP platform. The GOP platform, sure, has some particularly rotten fruit — "we support the English First approach", vouchers and "choice," abstinence, online universities, attacking colleges as "zones of intellectual intolerance favoring the Left", and kulturkampf over religion and "cultural identity." But the two planks clearly are trees sharing the same roots.

Fundamentally, the framing used to understand problems and prescribe solutions in education is a bipartisan one: it's always about competition, and America competing with competitiveness in competitions with other competitors to out-compete each other to win (implied anti-China saber-rattling included, free of charge!).

Dem: "An Economy that Out-Educates the World"
GOP (2008): "Education Means a More Competitive America"

It's no surprise then, with framing like this, how easily right-wing education policies are held by Democrats and Republicans alike.

What might an actually progressive education plank look like?

There are a lot of things that could have been included in the Dem's education plank, especially since they really want — need — high youth turnout to keep the White House and win back Congress. Here are several (some more politically plausible than others):

  • Attack standardized testing, and all systems that link any benefits or penalties to them.
  • Propose returning most decision-making back to the classroom
  • Propose that students should have a significant presence on all school boards and administrative bodies.
  • Propose that any charter school operating with public funds must be a non-profit with a democratically-elected board.
  • Propose a constitutional amendment to ensure that all students receive an equitable, properly-funded, quality public education.
  • Propose a strengthening of student free-speech rights in K12 and college, which courts have been drastically eroding over the past decade.
  • Propose a serious student loan debt forgiveness program. Right now the current income-based loan repayment programs are confusing and underresourced, and only apply to Federal loans (no luck if you, like most of us, had to take out a ton of private loans).
  • Propose allowing student loan debt to be discharged in bankruptcy, like all other loans.
  • Propose that Federal student loans will be granted at drastically lower rates, perhaps the Prime Rate
  • Affirm that all public and private university employees — including grad students — have the right to organize under the NLRB.
  • Propose that any accredited university, in order for any of their students to receive federal education benefits, must be a non-profit.

I'm not holding my breath that we'll be seeing any of those bulletpoints coming from the White House anytime soon. It'll take a massive, multi-sector, non-electorally-focused student movement that can instill terror in the hearts of politicians to get any of this done. And that's exactly what we should be organizing around this fall semester, even in an election year — or as our friends in Québec might insist, especially in an election year.

Democratic and Republican Party Platforms: Education Planks, 2012 and 2008

Below is, for your reference, the education planks of the Democratic and Republican Party Platforms for 2012 and 2008.

Democrats: 2012 | 2008

Republicans: 2012 | 2008