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.
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?
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.
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."
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.
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.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday that mayors should take control of big-city school districts where academic performance is suffering.
Duncan said mayoral control provides the strong leadership and stability needed to overhaul urban schools.
He acknowledged Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso, asking how many superintendents the city had in the past 10 years. The answer was seven.
"And you wonder why school systems are struggling," Duncan said. "What business would run that way?"
After the forum, Duncan told The Associated Press that urban schools need someone who is accountable to voters and driving all of a city's resources behind children.
"Part of the reason urban education has struggled historically is you haven't had that leadership from the top," he said.
In a sense, I can understand his motivation: as head of Chicago Public Schools, he was a direct recipient of abrogated school board power. The democratic, decentralized, and much-lauded Local School Council system in Chicago (which was created in the late 80s through tireless grassroots community organizing against the very bureaucracy Duncan would end up running) was systematically gutted and ignored under his tenure. It also isn't surprising that his main line of attack is that institutions of learning and governance aren't run enough like businesses. Duncan's Renaissance 2010 program was written and handed to him by the big business players in Chicago and elsewhere.
Now the Center for American Progress, through its panoply of blogs, is pushing the idea with some help with Mayor Bloomberg. Both CAP's Wonk Room and Matthew Yglesias blogs talked up the idea that really, having fewer elected officials means more democracy. Tom Vander Ark at the Huffington Post called what little democratic control we have over our schools to be a "strange historical remnant." Yglesias took the idea and ran with it, all the way to its monarchical end:
I think this is part of a larger issue about getting democracy right in the United States. There was an assumption, at one time, that you could make government more democratic and accountable by, in essence, multiplying the number of elected officials.
In retrospect, I think this was based on flawed logic and faulty assumptions that forgot to account for the fact that people have a limited amount of time they’re realistically going to spend monitoring public officials.
I think part of the answer is that states should probably adopt unicameral legislatures and consider cutting down on the number of independently elected statewide officials. But cutting down on the quantity and influence of hyper-local electeds and putting responsibility in the hands of visible figures like the mayor and city council is crucial.
Apparently Bloomberg did an interview for ThinkProgress, part of which featured him extoling the virtues of dictatorial control over schools, teachers, and students, with the help of bogus, cooked numbers:
My favorite part is near the end, when he says: “...you could literally end democracy as we know it here in this country… without an educated public. And when you have these school boards that are fundamentally controlled by special interests, the truth of the matter is that students come last, if at all.” Fewer elected officials = more democracy! It all makes perfect sense now!
Thankfully, regular readers largely countered and ridiculed such a position:
The flipside of Matt’s point is that when a single local elected executive is responsible for EVERYTHING, it’s pretty hard to hold him or her accountable for any specific thing. If you like what Bloomberg’s doing with, say, public safety and housing but don’t like his education policies, how do you hold him accountable? You can’t cast half a vote. On the other hand, a school board subject to being voted out of office can be held accountable.
And one of the commenters actually mentions what progressive reform of our school systems would look like:
The other kind of reform that is possible is to empower parents and teachers, but in order to do that you don’t need to gather power into the office of the mayor- you need to distribute power into the neighborhoods, families, and classrooms.
Another tip-off is the exaggerated concern about the “special interests”. Matt isn’t talking here about the textbook publishers and computer sellers- a mayor who doesn’t know anything about education isn’t going to tangle with those “experts”. And he isn’t talking about the real estate industry that wants to keep school taxes low- no mayor is going to try to trim the horns of the real estate barons.
No, when Matt is talking about “special interests” he’s referring to teachers and parents. Transfer the powers of the school board to the mayor’s office and those “special interests” will have just as much influence as the rest of us in an election- which is to say, none.
Authoritarian, bureaucratic schools are a bipartisan affair in politics - which means it's going to take a lot more than mere elections to reclaim our country's educational systems.