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."
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.
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: