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Chicago Teachers Strike a Critical Moment in the Future of Public Education

(photo: Kevin Gosztola)

The Chicago teachers strike could end by Monday, CTU President Karen Lewis now projects. It’s hard to get a handle on where the concessions have been made. We know that raises would be restructured as per union policy and health insurance rates would remain the same, pending union participation in wellness programs. In addition, the city would be unable to rescind raises in a time of economic emergency, as Rahm Emanuel did last year.

The big stumbling block in negotiations was teacher evaluations, and what we know right now is that tenured teachers in the first year could not be fired because of evaluations, and that evaluations in later years could be appealed. It’s unclear how much testing evaluations will factor into overall teacher assessments.

Chicago wants to use a value-added assessment for teacher evaluations, which has been seriously questioned as a legitimate tool. The ultimate goal is to fire so-called “bad” teachers, though it’s completely unclear that this would improve school performance. There is little difference between school performance in union and non-union schools, for example. And EPI economist Larry Mishel has said on the record that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who ran Chicago schools from 2001 to 2009, said that he had no problem dismissing bad teachers. It’s unclear, then, why more tools are needed on the part of the Chicago Public Schools.

I’m also curious to see the outcome of the work conditions demands from the CTU around air conditioning, libraries, arts and physical education classes, counselors, class sizes, etc.

The city may have seen the writing on the wall here. The public is pretty solidly behind the teachers, especially families with students in the Chicago public schools. In addition, school janitors filed a strike notice, suggesting that this whole thing was unraveling for the city. Rahm Emanuel may want to kick the crap out of teachers unions, but he may have found the foot in his own posterior.

Emanuel tried to take away the ability of the union to strike. He took their raises and trashed them. He has a stated policy of increasing charter schools and closing public schools. This is an agenda of privatization. The union, in overwhelming numbers, stood up and said no. This is literally the first time that a union has tried to stop the rightward drift of education policy over the past several years. This is likely to spur future efforts.

And this was accomplished despite a tremendous amount of media headwinds against their position, and a near-unanimity on education “reform” talking points. Instead it was the voices of ordinary people, of workers, of public school alumnae that drove the debate in a positive direction. In a superlative post, Erik Loomis describes why he supports the teachers:

My high school, Springfield High School in Springfield, Oregon, was not good. People have asked me how I became an academic out of that town. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in my high school class who went down this road. Most of us didn’t even go to college […]

How did anyone get a good education?

Because for at least part of our day, we had great teachers. In history, which was always my favorite subject, we had an AP teacher who probably wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but who knew his stuff and imparted it to me and really played an important role in my becoming a professional historian. But for more average kids, there was this amazing teacher who could really reach these people where they lived. I don’t know how much people really learned from him. But I learned a lot and average kids loved this guy. His name was Conrad Roemer and he was a special man. In English, despite the disaster of the AP course, there were good teachers. I remember reading The Sun Also Rises in one course, taught by a someone who also coached and it blowing my mind and him being a reason for it […]

The Chicago Teachers Union deserves everything they are asking for because many of them are heroes. For some, for kids like me, they are role models who give young people social mobility and who teach them that learning is a great thing. They know that standardized testing is worthless, that it bores everyone (as its early iterations bored me in high school), that they need to be allowed to teach and inspire. They deserve what they are asking for because they care more about young people’s future than anyone else in society, often more than the students’ own parents and certainly more than the education capitalists and liberal pundits who concern troll about these kids without having interacted with them. These teachers deserve what they are asking for because each and every day, many of them face confused, angry kids who have seen terrible things at home and can’t deal, who bring hateful words and knives and even guns into to the schools, because they face cursing and violence and horrible things on a daily basis, things Rahm Emanuel can’t even dream of.

The Chicago Teachers Union deserves the world because they take kids like me out of working-class families and help them fulfill their dreams.

I was a product of public schools who spent one year in a private school. My parents thought it was the “thing to do” to properly challenge and stimulate me. It was a nightmare. The curriculum was actually largely similar to my public school curriculum, and the learning environment was so strict and rigid that I simply didn’t fit in. As someone who had public and private school experience in similarly situated good schools, I would take the public school experience any day of the week.

The move to privatize public education took a blow from the Chicago teachers strike. Let’s hope things move forward.

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David Dayen

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