Chicago has been the focus of corporate school “reform,” but Chicago is now the epicenter of the push back against it. On June 11, 2012, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leaders announced that 89.73% of CTU members—98% of those who cast ballots—voted to give the union authority to call a strike if contract negotiations with Chicago Public Schools fail (Chicago Teachers Union).
This astounding vote was about much more than a contract. It tapped into teachers’ deep anger at 17 years of neoliberal education “reforms” that have demoralized and blamed teachers and belittled their knowledge, taken the joy out of classrooms, and decimated public education. After 17 years of the tyranny of high stakes tests, business-like management of public schools, school closings and turnarounds by private operators, disinvestment of resources from neighborhood public schools, and moves to pay teachers based on competitive performance measures, teachers have had enough. A new revitalized teachers union, along with parents, students and community members of Chicago, are standing up to the assault on public education.
On July 16, 2012, a mandatory fact finder—tasked with making recommendations for a new collective bargaining agreement between the Board of Education of the City of Chicago (Board) and CTU—shocked Mayor Rahm Emanuel by finding largely in favor of the CTU. Quickly, the Mayor and his appointed Board backed down on extending the school day without paying teachers for their extra time and agreed to rehire laid off teachers to add more art, music, and physical education classes to the school day. This was a victory for students, community members, and the CTU who have been fighting for a “better school day,” not just a longer day. But the struggle is far from finished. Teachers do not want a strike, but CTU leadership rejected the report noting that it left many key issues unresolved, including smaller class sizes, fair compensation for paraprofessionals, a rehire pool for laid-off teachers, and fair systems for teacher evaluation and compensation. Further, issues of charter school expansion and hiring more nurses and social workers are also at stake.
As a national Network of Teacher Activist Groups (TAG), we believe Chicago teachers are in a crucial battle to defend public education and make schools more equitable and just. The outcome of this struggle will not only impact the people of Chicago, but also set the tone for promoting educational equity across the nation. Their fight is our fight. We are asking educators, school social workers, parents, students, youth workers, and any concerned community members to join us in support and solidarity for the CTU teachers as they stand up to the powerful forces aligned to dismantle public education. Chicago has been a launching pad for the neoliberal corporate education agenda, beginning with mayoral control in 1995 (a centerpiece of the neoliberal education agenda), high stakes testing and top-down accountability in 1997 (a model for NCLB), neighborhood school closings and expansion of charter schools in 2004 and turnarounds in 2007 (enshrined in Race to the Top), and now merit pay.
But the chickens have come home to roost. Chicago is now the focal point of a teacher, parent, and community offensive. At the center is the bold new leadership of the CTU with a research-driven, equity-centered education program (The Schools Chicago Students Deserve) and the will to galvanize teachers into a powerful rank and file force – as they showed with a militant rally of over 6500 that preceded the strike authorization vote (check out video). This is a teacher union allied with parents and communities from around the city who have fought against school closings and have launched a citywide campaign for an elected representative school board. In April 2011, Stand for Children (Stand), other corporate-backed promoters of privatizing public schools, and Chicago’s Mayor Emanuel pushed through Illinois Law SB7. The law requires 75% of all eligible CTU voters to vote “yes” to authorize the union to call a strike vote. At the time, Stand’s leader Jonah Edelman bragged that the CTU “will never be able to muster the votes to strike.”
Wrong. As in Wisconsin, in their arrogance, the privatizing billionaires and organizations they fund to prop up the assault on teacher unions and public education didn’t reckon on the deep anger of teachers and their capacity to stand up and fight. They must have been shocked when thousands of teachers marched in the streets on May 23rd and then 90% voted to authorize a strike vote. As CTU President Karen Lewis said, the results are an “indictment” of CPS management and “outside groups that seek to destroy the real work being done by Chicago’s teachers, paraprofessionals, and clinicians.” In Chicago, a strategic battle for reinvigorated public education is on. The billionaire hedge fund operators, corporate CEOs, charter school operators, and corporate “reformers” understand this.
The week of vote, the astro-turf organization, “Education Reform Now,” flooded Black radio stations with ads designed to turn parents against the union. The eyes of the country are on Chicago. A decisive victory by Chicago teachers would send a powerful signal to teachers and teacher unions around the country that teacher unions allied with parents can challenge the corporate agenda that is strangling our schools, destabilizing communities of color, and dismantling public education. The billionaire education “reformers” are pouring money into Chicago to undermine public support for the teachers. We need to counter with real grassroots support for Chicago teachers.