It had been a long week for Kimberly Jones. Exhausted from nine days of picketing at Henson Elementary School, the 52-year-old Special Education Teaching Assistant sat at the small kitchen table in her North Lawndale apartment. In the first strike in a quarter of a century, 29,000 teachers marched the streets of Chicago demanding reform of the ailing public education system. In a fight over working conditions, pay and job security, the Chicago Teachers Union challenged Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s education policies.
“We’ve been micromanaged into doing things that we know are harmful for our children,” explained Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now. “It has been a real victory to finally stand up and say, ‘This is not a good way of doing school, just because somebody in an air-conditioned building with a spreadsheet thinks it is a good way of doing it.’”
After ten months of negotiation, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike. At the same time Mayor Emmanuel was demanding a longer school day, he rescinded the teachers’ most recent 4 percent pay increase to help balance the $750 million budget deficit.
Supported by the mainstream media, he condemned the public school teachers for being motivated solely by pay and job security. “I will not stand by while the children of Chicago are played as pawns in an internal dispute within a union. This was a strike of choice and is now a delay of choice that is wrong for our children.”
The Chicago Teachers Union insists that the emphasis on salary is a response to recent Illinois state laws that prohibit strikes except over wages and benefits. At the heart of the strike is the demand for education equality. “When schools open again there will be 160 schools without a public library. When schools open again, there will be schools without textbooks. We fight today for schools on the South Side and schools on the West Side to look like schools on the North Side,” preached Reverend Jesse Jackson to a crowd gathered September 15 in Union Park.
Chicago Teachers Union is striking for the learning conditions of children as well as the working conditions of teachers. Schoolteachers cite a lack of resources, a scarcity of social workers and nurses, and classrooms with more than 40 children as contributing to the dire state of public education.
Lindsey Rose remembers her first day as an English as a Second Language teacher. Fresh out of college, she showed up to Richards Career Academy bright-eyed and full of energy. She was given a class of 20 Spanish-speaking kids in a predominantly black public high school. “They had cleaned out a storage closet. They took off the plaque that said ‘Storage’ and painted a number on the door — 32A. It had one little prison window and that was it. There were no chalkboards and no textbooks. There was barely room for the students to sit in a row and for me to stand next to them. And that was my first classroom.”
“Education reflects what we value and what we ignore in society,” argues the revolutionary Bill Ayers, of Weather Underground fame. The education reformer has published many books on pedagogy, including, “Handbook of Social Justice in Education” (2008) and “Teaching Toward Freedom” (2010). “In a democratic country like the United States you would expect education to reflect fundamental values of a democracy — equality, originality, courage, curiosity and imagination — not totalitarian values of obedience and conformity. In the Civil Rights Movement we fought for the black right to vote and protested the segregation of schools. Today we are still struggling.”
Mayor Emmanuel advocates market-based education in a plan touted as the most comprehensive reform of Chicago Public Schools in over a decade. His corporate education model promotes competition, choice and incentives. Pushing hard for policies of corporate efficiency, Mayor Emmanuel proposes to close chronically underperforming schools and fire chronically underperforming teachers.
Supporting the national education agenda of former Chicago Public Schools CEO and current United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Mayor Emmanuel plans to evaluate teachers on the basis of standardized student test scores. “Our challenge is to make sure every child in America is learning from an effective teacher, no matter what it takes,” Duncan argued at the annual National Education Association meeting in San Diego. In order to recognize and reward success in the classroom, Duncan would have student test scores drive teacher evaluation, compensation and tenure decision. Calculated on the basis of improvements in student test scores over time, teachers would receive merit-based pay.
In 2004, Duncan championed an innovative program to privatize public education. Renaissance 2010 closed underperforming schools in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods and turned them over to private operators — charter, contract and performance schools.
Free from traditional bureaucracy and regulation, charter schools advocate greater educational choice and innovation within the public school system. Teachers and parents frustrated with the failing public education system support charter schools to provide a smaller learning community, individual student attention and access to new technology.
A 2009 study of charter schools in Chicago by economist and Northwestern University researcher Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach found charter school students did not perform better than public school students on standardized tests. In an interview with Carlo Rotella for the New Yorker, Schanzenbach argues against claims that charter schools are closing the achievement gap: “I don’t think there is any real evidence that people are made worse off and there is limited evidence that they are making things better.”
“Privatization, as we see in the example of charter schools,” explains Therese Quinn, professor of education at University of Illinois at Chicago, “moves finances and resources out of the control of a broad, democratically organized public into the hands of a much smaller, undemocratically selected sector. When a school gets turned into a private institution, it is no longer accountable to the public.”
Privately managed charter schools employ non-union teachers who can be paid lower salaries and are not entitled to job security. Karyn Sandlos, director of the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at SAIC, explains that non-union teachers guarantee a cheaper labor force and allow the Mayor’s office to move the players around like pieces on a chessboard whenever it is politically convenient for him to do so. The administration saves money by replacing experienced, senior teachers with a parade of low-paid short-termers.
Quinn argues for education to be considered a human right and not a private source of profit: “Privatization transforms schools into a place to turn a quick buck. The kids are the ones that suffer, because the people who are putting the resources on the table are going to want to put the cheapest resources out possible so they can make a bigger profit.”
She criticizes the neoliberal reform agenda of minimal cost and maximum efficiency in Chicago public schools: “In a corporate-model school you want to get rid of the people who will lower your profits. Rahm Emmanuel has been talking a lot about how we need to get rid of the bad teachers. What he hasn’t talked about is the track record of charter schools that get rid of the kids who lower the test scores — for example the kids who are bilingual, the kids who are still in the process of learning enough English to take the tests, the kids with disabilities, the kids with behavior problems. Charter schools have a bad track record of push-outs — charter schools tend to push out those students because they are interested in keeping their test scores high so they can receive greater amounts of funding.”
School reform promoted by the political class reveals a nexus of corporate interests. The wealthiest 1% of Chicago control urban education — the Board of Education appointed by Mayor Emmanuel consists of corporate CEOs, financiers, real estate developers and a hotel magnate.
The Chicago Teachers Union opposes education policies promoted by billionaires that they claim are impractical on the classroom level. “The Chicago Teachers Union wants reform,” argues Quinn. “We just don’t want reform that is imposed undemocratically. We want to be at the table to help make decisions about student-centered reforms.”
Despite the success or failure of the final contract, the Chicago Teachers Union has drawn national attention to the deepening decline of public education.
“This was a moment when teachers said ‘We believe what we do, preparing young people to be thoughtful participants in the decision-making processes of our society, is fundamental to democracy.’ ”
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Elliot