Is it Groundhog Day for the Chicago Public Schools? Back in 1987, the city's teachers went on a 19-day strike over pay and class size. Sunday night, ongoing contract talks between Mayor Rahm Emanuel's team—Chicago schools are under mayoral control—and the Chicago Teacher's Union fell apart, seemingly over the same issues. Emanuel says the strike is the "wrong choice for children," but the biggest strike in a generation isn't just about a fatter paycheck and more benefits.
Sure, Chicago's 26,000 teachers are angry over Emanuel and his school CEO, Jean Claude Brizard, putting the brakes on a promised 4 percent raise, being told they needed to work a longer school day without adequate compensation, and standardized test scores becoming 25 percent of teacher evaluations, but Phil Cantor, a science teacher and strike captain at North-Grand High School told Democracy Now that the contract negotiations over pay aren't the biggest factor in the strike.
"Teachers are not most interested in compensation," said Cantor. "We’re most interested in being able to do our jobs for the students we serve." The teachers, says Cantor, are only able to legally strike over certain issues in their collective bargaining agreement, pay being one of them. Striking over pay and evaluation is simply the tool they're using to call attention to the real problems in the school system.
Though the teachers are getting slammed for not caring about the district's 404,000 students—a staggering 87 percent of whom come from low income backgrounds. Rhoda Rae Gutierrez, a mother of two CPS students and member of Parents for Teachers, said she and other parents are supporting the teachers because "the working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of our children." Gutierrez says she'll be joining the picket lines to support the teachers' fight for a fair contract and compensation, but she's also fighting for all the things that have been eliminated due to budget cuts: "lower class size, well-resourced schools—and we mean having psychologists, enough social workers, enough support staff, enough aides in the classroom, (and) nurses."
An anonymous Chicago teacher who took issue with Brizard's recent statement that "everyone knows that a strike would only hurt our kids," detailed the terrible conditions that have motivated her to walk off the job:
"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.
When you lock down our schools with metal detectors and arrest brothers for play fighting in the halls, that hurts our kids.
When you take 18-25 days out of the school year for high stakes testing that is not even scientifically applicable for many of our students, that hurts our kids.
When you spend millions on your pet programs, but there’s no money for school level repairs, so the roof leaks on my students at their desks when it rains, that hurts our kids."
As education expert and author Sam Chaltain noted, "regardless of what one thinks about teacher unions, surely we can all agree that having teachers more directly engaged in core questions about education reform is a good idea." Teachers advocating for safe classrooms with manageable numbers of children, well stocked and staffed school libraries, robust arts programs, and support services for kids who need it most is also a good thing.
And at a time when we need more creativity in schools and more personalized, hands on learning, teachers questioning the increasing emphasis on multiple choice standardized tests sounds like putting students first. Chicago's teachers aren't alone on this one either. A mere 7 percent of teachers nationally believe high stakes exams are essential and even President Obama has raised concerns about the way these tests are being used in schools.
Instead of walking a picket line, there's no doubt Chicago's teachers would rather be in the classroom with their students. After all, many of those teachers have their own children enrolled in CPS, so they're not simply fighting for other people's children. As Chaltain says, this is the way democracy works.
In a city that is the heart of labor unions, built on the backs of working class families who worked in railroad yards, steel mills and meatpacking plants, we should be proud that teachers refuse to keep quiet about the injustices they see around them.
Photo via Chicago Teachers Union