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Chicago Teachers Take Stand Against Corporate Education Reform

- Common Dreams staff

For the first time in a quarter century, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)—which represents educators, school clinicians, and support staff in the nation's third-largest school district—is on strike today after weekend negotiations with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) ended on Sunday without agreement on contract disputes that have been ongoing since June.

Karen Lewis, president of the CTU, speaking at a press conference late Sunday night, said: "We are committed to staying at the table until a contract is place. However, in the morning no CTU member will be inside our schools. We will walk the picket lines. We will talk to parents. We will talk to clergy. We will talk to the community. We will talk to anyone who will listen—we demand a fair contract today, we demand a fair contract now. And, until there is one in place that our members accept, we will be on the [picket] line."

More than 29,000 employees are participating in the strike which impacts over 350,000 students citywide.

Embattled Democratic Mayor Rahm Emmanuel called the teachers' action "a strike of choice," but opponents of the mayor's corporate education reform agenda respond by saying that the policies proposed are simply destroying public education in the city and, because of Chicago's connection to President Obama, the impact of the resistance to such measures has national implications.

As Pauline Lipman, professor of education and policy studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago and member of Teachers for Social Justice, told Democracy Now! on Monday, "Chicago was the birthplace of this neoliberal corporate reform agenda of high-stakes testing. Paying teachers based on test scores—dis-investing in neighborhood schools and then closing them and turning them over to charter schools... [That was] really a model which was picked up by cities around the country and then made a national agenda when Arne Duncan, who had been the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, became Obama’s secretary of education."

Now, says Lipman, the Chicago Teachers Union, backed by union leaders like Lewis, have made Chicago the "epicenter of the pushback" against such measures.

Lewis confirmed that the CTU and CPS were not "far apart" on compensation demands, but that more fundamental differences remained that the teachers say are critical to their fight for "education justice" in Chicago schools.  Included in that list are demands for smaller class sizes, classroom upgrades including installation of air-conditioning systems for sweltering days in outdated buildings, evaluation systems that acknowledge the complex influences on student achievement, and a guarantee that teacher health benefits will not be further degraded by city budget cuts.

Diane Ravitch, historian of education and Research Professor of Education at New York University, was supportive of the striking teachers, but sad about both the state of education in the US and the poor quality of the public discussion that currently surrounds the issue. "We must commit ourselves," in both word and deed Ravitch said, "to a system of free, just, and forward minded public education – not testing, privatization schemes, or crazy accountability schemes that take the focus off of what really matters."

"If anyone thinks this strike is just another union “ploy” for higher pay or less “working time” they are sorely mistaken," she added. "And while workers should be entitled to protect their rights, the CPS strike is about the heart and soul of public schooling, the deprofessionalization of teachers, and the ways that the education 'crisis' nation wide has been co-opted as a means of pushing privatization as the be-all-and-end-all solution to the 'achievement gap'. Schools are not businesses, children are not widgets, and teachers are not robots or machines. Let’s start there."

Though the national media coverage generated by the strike is focusing on the imposition of students and parents in Chicago, or the political implications of how the CTU fight with Mayor Emmanuel (former White House chief of staff to President Obama) will impact the upcoming election, defenders of the teachers union say the fight is a necessary and important fight for teachers and labor unions both in Chicago and nationwide.

As In These Times' David Moberg reports recently:

The union and most teachers see current city policy as an attack on public education (especially with the promotion of charter schools despite their spotty record). For Chris Christianson, a 25-year veteran teacher, the central issue is "privatizing public education," and despite the limitations on how the union can address that process through negotiations, he says, "The only leverage we have is a strike."

Gloria Steinem, longtime activist and co-founder of the Women's Media Center, came out in favor of the CTU on Sunday, saying: "I proudly wear a red t-shirt in support of the Chicago Teachers Union strike.  They have been forced to strike – for the first time in 25 years – by the false economy of firing and penalizing the experienced teachers most needed by the students and by new teachers; by lengthening the school day as warehousing without educational services, healthy school buildings, and paid teachers; by what they have the knowledge to call the “apartheid-like system” of differential discipline policies; and by what seems to be a national tactic of demonizing teachers in order to turn public schools into corporate profit centers."

The New York Times reported early on Monday from Lane Tech College Prep, on the city’s North Side, where most of the high school’s 250 teachers had assembled early Monday morning in preparation for a full day of picketing.

They wore red union T-shirts and carried signs saying “Honk If You Love a Teacher.” Many passing motorists responded with incessant horn blowing.

“We’re ready to stay out as long as it takes to get a fair contract and protect our schools,” said Steve Parsons, who teaches Advanced Placement psychology.

Even parents who were inconvenienced by the strike said the support and trust the teachers. According to Bloomberg:

Kat Rudolf, an unemployed mother of two, called the strike “an inconvenience” in finding another job, which she called “a full-time effort.”

Still, she said, the teachers merit respect.

“I definitely stand with them and I hope they get what they want and deserve,” Rudolf said.
 

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Chicago Public Teachers Stage Historic Strike in Clash with Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Education Reforms:

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Striking Teachers, Parents Join Forces to Oppose "Corporate" Education Model in Chicago:

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Chicago Teachers Strike Could Portend Referendum on Obama Admin’s Approach to Education Reform:

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