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What the Chicago Public Schools Strike is Really About: Public Education in the U.S.

chicago teachers union, chicago school strike

via: Occupied Chicago Tribune Picket outside Darwin Elementary in Logan Square on September 10. (Photo: Matt McLoughlin)

If you only read the headlines over at news outlets like MSNBC, you’d think teachers in Chicago refused to go to work today because they really want to stick it to public school parents.

400,000 Kids Stranded as Chicago Teachers Strike,” is the headline for one video. “Teachers Walk Out on 350,000 Chicago Kids,” read another. The interviews go on to interview parents, most of whom are (understandably) anywhere from frustrated to outraged that they have to scramble to find some place, possibly long-term, for their kids to go while they’re at work.

What the headlines don’t mention, and the stories most often only scratch at, are the reasons the Chicago Teachers Union won’t sign the contract and, therefore, 30,000 teachers won’t go to work. It’s not just about pay raises — both sides agree they’re getting close on compensation issues.

What Chicago Public School teachers are striking for are things that are affecting public school kids all over the U.S., not just in Chicago. They’re striking for their city’s schools, but honestly, they’re striking for my city’s schools, too.

In These Times picked up a post over on Occupied Chicago Tribune, which lists four reasons the teachers are striking — not specific bargaining points, but broad areas of difference, which, if ignored in this contract, sets this district on a course that will be difficult to reverse.

Here’s what the progressive journal posted [via Occupied Chicago Tribune]:

A better school day: A comprehensive education including not only curricula in math, science and history but also art, music, physical education and foreign languages in all Chicago Public Schools.

Wraparound services and adequate staffing to support students in need: This includes counselors, social workers, librarians and school nurses with defined job descriptions as well as preparation and break time.

Recall rights for educators and school staff: Hundreds of teachers have already been displaced by school closures across the city and more will be by the planned closing of at least 100 more schools in the coming years.

Fair compensation: No merit pay, less reliance on standardized tests and pay commensurate to increased time in the classroom as well as inflation. CPS reneged last year on the contractually obligated 4 percent pay raise negotiated in 2007 and is currently offering annual 2 percent raises over the next four years. An independent fact-finder’s report released in July recommended pay raises of 15-18 percent next year.

The actual Chicago Tribune determined three key points that still separate the CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union:

SALARIES AND BENEFITS. The district offered 16 percent increase over four years and “modified step increases that both reward experience and provide better incentives for mid-career teachers.” The union said it’s closer on pay but is still concerned about rising health care costs and other benefits. Teachers sought a substantial raise in the contract’s first year because of the longer day and want to keep raises for experience.

JOB SECURITY. The union has pushed for a system to recall teachers who have been laid off when new openings occur. This has become important because of rumors the district plans to close up to 100 schools in coming years. The district says teachers displaced by school closings will be eligible for a job at new schools if there is a vacancy — or may elect to take a three-month severance.

TEACHER EVALUATIONS. The union wants to lower how much student performance contributes to evaluations. CPS has said the new evaluation system, created in collaboration with teachers, was negotiated and settled in March under state law.

As for MSNBC’s headlines, yes, kids were out of school. But 140 of them opened for the morning in order to get kids who rely on school for breakfast and lunch fed. The thing about strikes is they’re not meant to be convenient for everyone. They mean to show the necessity of the striking party, the power of them. They’re meant to ensure that workers have a voice.

Education reform is moving quickly in the U.S., too quickly, and it’s moving ahead with too little science and research to back up its effectiveness. Ed Reform is stripping public schools of things like recess, art, music and, you know, time to think. Ed Reform is also placing way to much emphasis on students’ abilities and interest in taking one single test and having the results of that test determine everything from whether their teacher gets to keep her job to whether their school gets to stay open the next year. Ed Reform thinks its putting a social justice mission into public education, when in reality, it’s bolstering the status quo. Ed reform does nothing to address poverty issues — it only punishes poor kids, who are less likely to have all the advantages of kids who were born to educated parents.

Ed reform is creating a whole industry of standardized tests developers who turn around and become developers of matchy-matchy standardized and shallow curriculum that is also, increasingly, pushing developmentally inappropriate tasks onto younger and younger kids. Ed reform creates a mistrust of teachers; it treats them like inherently lazy professionals who, without some kind of paternal oversight wouldn’t care enough about the kids in their classes to figure out how to get through to them.

The fact that teachers in Chicago are willing to throw themselves in front of this moving truck of Ed reform in order to push back against this is something I’m personally watching closely and thankful for. Someone’s gotta put the brakes on.

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