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« For all the Veterans; what is your answer? | Main | Socialism? What Is It? »

Strike in Chicago

By Diane Wahto
September 16, 2012

Wichita, Kansas—According to news media, the Chicago Teachers Union strike might end today, September 16, 2012, and students will be in school on Monday.However, Karen Lewis, CTU president, said the board of education shouldn’t make hasty assumptions.

As a lifetime NEA member and a member of the negotiations teams at the three schools where I taught, I have taken an interest in this strike, which seems to me to be a defining moment in the future of teachers unions in America.

The issues in the Chicago strike are the same as those that have cropped up all over the country ever since No Child Left Behind hit the political landscape. Any hope teachers had that the Obama administration would recognize teachers as professional employees pretty much faded with his administration’s Race to the Top, a competitive, test-heavy program pitting schools and teachers against one another for funding for schools. Those of us who have been NEA members throughout our teaching careers and who have by and large supported Democratic candidates because they have supported teachers and their right to organize and advocate for better pay and working conditions found ourselves on the losing end of the stick with Obama and Rahm Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago, who was President Obama’s chief of staff during the first years of his term.

Issues in Chicago include wages, working conditions, tenure, health care premiums, and evaluations. All of these issues are negotiable, according to Illinois state law. According to the New York Times, Sunday, September 16, 2012:

Since last November, this city’s 26,000 public school teachers have been negotiating over the terms of the four-year contract, but the battle has played out more broadly, over the direction and philosophy of the school system, even as it struggled to solve gaping budget deficits. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called for a longer school day, more control for principals in picking teachers, thorough evaluations for teachers, and expansion of the city’s charter schools. The teachers have said they felt under siege, and pitted against a larger national education trend that they say fails to consider Chicago’s realities, like the fact that 87 percent of public school students here come from low-income homes.

Diana Ravitch, NYU historian, was a member of George Bush’s No Child Left Behind program, which she has since disavowed. In her response to Obama’s defense of his Race to the Top program when he spoke to the National Urban League, she said:

All of these elements are problematic. Evaluating teachers in relation to student test scores will have many adverse consequences. It will make the current standardized tests of basic skills more important than ever, and even more time and resources will be devoted to raising scores on these tests. The curriculum will be narrowed even more than under George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind, because of the link between wages and scores. There will be even less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education. Teachers will teach to the test. There will be more cheating, more gaming the system.

Furthermore, charter schools on average do not get better results than regular public schools, yet Obama and Duncan are pushing them hard. Duncan acknowledges that there are many mediocre or bad charter schools, but chooses to believe that in the future, the new charters will only be high performing ones. Right.

The President should re-examine his reliance on standardized testing to identify the best teachers and schools and the worst teachers and schools. The tests are simply not adequate to their expectations.

Mayor Emanuel is following the same formula put into place during his White House tenure. This despite evidence that the formula doesn’t work. While governors across the country are doing their best to disenfranchise public employee unions, Governor Scott Walker being the most egregious practitioner of this movement, the Chicago Teachers Union, under the leadership of Karen Lewis, has shown a strength that will quite likely revitalize the public employee union movement across the country.

According to Howard Ryan, an organizer who is writing a book on teacher labor unions: “[Striking Chicago teachers] are finding overwhelming support where it counts, from parents and the community. A poll released yesterday said 47 percent of Chicago voters support the strike, and 39 percent oppose it.”

Ryan points out that teachers are now fighting efforts, led by Mayor Emanuel, to privatize the school district, a movement that is taking place across the country, despite evidence that private schools and charter schools are more expensive to operate than public schools and private school students do no better than those in public schools.

The plan Mayor Emanuel is implementing in Chicago seems to have come straight out of a right-wing think tank, such as the Kansas Policy Institute, a Koch-initiated group. Ryan lays out how the plan works:

Chicago teachers widely believe that the mayor and his appointed school board are bent on pushing out teachers who have more experience and have climbed the salary ladder. “They come out of nowhere and say, ‘You guys are the problem,’ said Bertenshaw, who has taught English for 21 years. “‘Your kids are stupid because you’re not doing your job. You guys are wasting money. We need to get rid of you.’”

The yearly ritual of school closures and “turnarounds” expedites the process, with teachers fired en masse to clear the way for privately operated charter schools. More than 100 Chicago schools have been closed in the last decade, and now, 119 charter schools operate in the city. Only 10 are unionized.

The thrust toward privatization, led in Kansas by Dave Trabert of the Kansas Policy Institute seems to have as its purpose to take organizing rights away from teachers, and in the process to take away their authority as educators.

As is the case with other professionals, public school teachers must have a college education and be certified before they enter the profession. They are required, in Kansas, to take college classes on a regular basis in order to keep their certification current.

Every so often, state legislatures develop a program that all the public schools in the state are bound to follow. Teachers attend workshops on these programs as they come along and try to adhere to them in their classrooms. Of course, it’s rare that money follows for implementation of these programs, and as with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, school districts are left with a one size fits all agenda to work with.

As a retired teacher and NEA member, I’m puzzled as to why Pres. Obama and Mayor Emanuel think teachers are incapable of knowing what makes good educational practice. It’s true that Obama taught constitutional law part time at the University of Chicago Law School. Maybe he thinks that makes him an expert on education. It doesn’t. Those of us who have taught students from kindergarten through community college can tell him that teaching law students is a walk in the park compared to dealing with the diversity of students in public school. What teachers face every day world boggle the minds of the most energetic politician. And, despite popular belief, we don’t do it for the money. In fact, my truck driver father earned more in retirement than I ever earned as a teacher. That didn’t matter. I had my choice of professions. I chose teaching and I was glad.

Last week, as I watched the Chicago teachers on the picket line on WGN News out of Chicago, I thought back to my days as a negotiator. Under Kansas law, teachers are not allowed to strike. However, we do have access to a variety of other forms of protest. One year, when I was the chief negotiator at Butler Community College, we did informational picketing. We also, with the help and support of students, wore white arm bands to graduation while one of our members distributed informational fliers to those attending the ceremony. The second largest community college in the state, Butler’s faculty was the lowest paid. That year, the board decided to give us a 9% raise.

Not long after, Jackie Vietti came on board as Butler president. She heard about the rancorous negotiations we had just gone through and she helped us implement Mutual Gains Bargaining. While MGB requires time, effort, and civility, it also puts both sides of the bargaining table on equal footing. Since I am no longer at Butler, I have no way of knowing if the system is still working. I do know it worked for us when I was there. I do know there were grumblings among faculty members that we were still not getting what we deserved because we had to “play nice.” I do know this—administration negotiators listened to us when we presented our facts and figures and took them into account when they made their offers.

Why Rahm Emanuel and his ilk are so opposed to giving teachers a voice in what happens in the school district is beyond me. He says he wants to save money, but according to reports, he has been a wastrel in other ways in the city. I suppose he doesn’t care if he gets elected to a second term. However, the teachers have shown that they have to power to make a difference and they aren’t afraid to use it.

Do teachers do this for the students? Yes. However, let’s be clear. Teachers do this for themselves as well. We must remember that teachers work and they need decent salaries and working conditions to do that work. We have the expertise to know what makes a good learning environment for students. That expertise needs to utilized, not penalized.

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