It looks as though the Chicago teachers’ strike has resulted in an agreement that pushes back attempts of mayor Rahm Emanuel and his personally-selected school board – stacked with hedge fund billionaires and former charter school administrators – to apply a corporate model of school reform to the Chicago Public Schools. Teachers’ delegates will vote on the contract tomorrow (Sunday September 16).
Originally, Obama’s former chief of staff had gone to the state legislature to impose an increase in the length of the school day, with no extra compensation for teachers. Although the two sides are now not far apart on pay issues, “at its heart, the strike is over the union’s deep opposition to what it calls a ‘corporate reform agenda’ that pursues a competitive or punitive relationship with teachers, rather than a collaborative one.”
The teachers had agreed to teacher evaluations required by the Illinois state legislature where 25 percent was based on student test achievement, but refused a demand to increase the weighting to 40 percent. According to Reuters, “Emanuel has retreated on his teacher evaluation demands, agreeing to phase in the new standards and lowering the percentage weighting of standardized tests. The union has taken advantage of the pressure on Emanuel to press for more job security from expected layoffs as more schools close.”
The president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union is Karen Lewis, who led an internal reform movement that won the union leadership in 2010. She followed a strategy of building alliances with the community to defend public education against top-down restructuring. When Emanuel’s board refused to budge on teacher evaluations and school closings, 90 percent of teachers voted to authorize strike action.
Democracy Now correspondent Jaisal Noor explained the significance of the leadership’s strategy: “Karen Lewis and CORE, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, they’re a group of teachers that came together to fight school closings, to organize communities to oppose school turnarounds. That is a policy that was started in Chicago with Renaissance 2010 and No Child Left Behind, and it’s devastated communities. It’s led to the layoffs of hundreds of teachers. And the previous union leadership was not fighting, was not organizing the community to oppose these policies.”
In These Times gives an eyewitness report from the second day of the strike at Cooper Academy elementary school in southwest Chicago, where teachers, parents and community members were out in force. “They marched in front of the school, decorated with tile mosaics of Latino resistance fighters from the Aztec days to the Mexican Revolution to modern-day labor leaders like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. They chanted in English and Spanish and carried homemade bilingual picket signs. … The turnout at Cooper—like those at other schools around the city Monday and Tuesday—suggests heavy local support for striking teachers. Many parents joined the picket line, often with children in tow in strollers or cavorting on bikes.”
Amy Goodman points out the parallel with the Occupy movement: “Thanks to the grass-roots organizing that preceded the strike (in the same Chicago streets where Obama was once a community organizer), the striking teachers enjoy extensive parent and student support. One parent, Rhoda Rae Gutierrez, has two children in elementary school in Chicago. She is a member of the group Parents 4 Teachers and is marching with the teachers. She told me, ‘When we fight for the rights of teachers for a fair contract, fair compensation, lower class size, well-resourced schools, having psychologists, enough social workers, enough support staff, enough aides in the classroom, nurses … when teachers have these resources in their schools, we know that our children can do incredible things.’ This struggle reflects the essence of Occupy Wall Street—community members across class, race and other traditional divides uniting in disciplined opposition to corporate power.”
The teachers’ action has divided the Democratic establishment between corporatists like Emanuel and those who still support union rights. As the Washington Post commented: “At stake in the conflict is not only the future of education reform but also the role of unions within the party and, by extension, the nation. Emanuel’s clear desire to reduce the teachers union’s role in the city’s schools is hardly his alone. … What’s brewing is a battle between Democratic Party management (chiefly mayors, backed by a significant portion of the public) and Democratic Party labor, also backed by a significant portion of the public.”
The Obama administration has ostensibly not taken sides in the dispute. But under Obama’s Race to the Top program, states are rewarded with extra funding for legislation that spends heavily on charter schools – publicly funded but privately run and non-union – and eliminates job security provisions from teacher union contracts. This has not gone unnoticed by Chicago’s teachers. In These Times reported: “In a sign of its lukewarm feeling toward the Democratic administration, CTU President Karen Lewis refused to greet Vice President Joe Biden during the AFT’s July convention in Detroit. The CTU delegation also refused to wear Obama-Biden T-shirts handed out for Biden’s speech, instead opting for the red CTU shirts.”
There is another dimension to the struggle: a move to replace tenured teachers, many of whom are African-American, with younger and much lower-paid teachers, most of whom are white. Teachers are the core of the African-American middle class in Chicago.
They are up against some powerful and politically-connected enemies who are pushing charter schools. Pauline Lipman, professor of Educational Policy Studies and Director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education at the University of Illinois-Chicago, told Democracy Now that “Chicago is the birthplace of this neo-liberal corporate reform agenda of high-stakes testing, paying teachers based on test scores, disinvesting in neighborhood schools and closing them, and turning them over to charter schools… It was a model which was picked up by cities around the country, and then made a national agenda when Arne Duncan… became Obama’s Secretary of Education.”
One of the main promoters of this agenda is Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman, son of civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman, who was caught on video boasting of his organization’s anti-union tactics: “Armed with millions of dollars supplied by wealthy financiers, he hired the top lobbyists in Illinois and won favor with the top politicians. He shaped legislation to use test scores for evaluating teachers, to strip due process rights from teachers, and to assure that teachers lost whatever job protections they had. In his clever and quiet campaign behind the scenes, he even managed to split the state teachers’ unions. His biggest victory consisted of isolating the Chicago Teachers Union and imposing a requirement that it could not strike without the approval of 75% of its members.”
The effect of this legislative attack was the opposite of his intentions – Chicago teachers united behind their new leadership. They continue to fight for a proper chance for children, many living in desperate poverty and navigating gang areas daily to get to school. Learning is a social process, and the progress of individual children is markedly affected by the social baggage they bring with them, for which teachers cannot compensate. For example, more than 80% of Chicago public school students qualify for free lunches because they come from low-income households.
Some schools, like Gresham Elementary on the South Side, are in neighborhoods hit hard by gang-related crime. Gunfire can sometimes be heard from the school, say teachers, and pupils have understandably performed poorly on state-mandated tests. Unless their results improve, the school could have its principal removed, or be closed, by education officials. The closing of schools and what happens to the teachers working in them has been a major issue in the dispute.
Like the struggle in Wisconsin to defend collective bargaining, and the efforts of the Occupy movement to assert the right to free assembly, the Chicago teachers are fighting to defend a fundamental American principle of education for all children, no matter how advantaged or disadvantaged their background. As Thomas Jefferson wrote to William Jarvis: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their controul with a wholsome discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”
Labor must follow the Chicago teachers’ example and build alliances across class and ethnic divides, but above all must assert its independence from corporate Democrats like Emanuel and Obama.