Today the Chicago teachers went on strike—their first in almost twenty-five years. The road to the strike has been a long one that includes 1) efforts by the hedge-fund elite behind Stand for [on] Children (SFC) to make such an occurrence impossible; 2) the desire of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to impose on Chicago public schools a model of corporate privatization; and 3) important changes in the functioning of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).
Stand on Children
The efforts of SFC are by now well known. A brief review: after spending almost $4 million on Illinois legislative races, SFC got SB7 as payoff. The bill made it impossible for the CTU to pass a strike vote—or so SFC CEO Jonah Edelman bragged in June 2011 to the Aspen Ideas Festival: “The unions cannot strike in Chicago.” Edelman and his allies figured that the 75 percent approval requirement for a strike with the further provision that abstentions counted as no votes could not be met.
Turns out they were wrong.
In early July, CTU membership voted by over 90 percent (and excluding abstentions, by 98 percent) to authorize their house of delegates to call a strike if contract negotiations failed.
“Reforming” Chicago Public Schools
When Emanuel ran for mayor of Chicago, one of his announced political goals was to “reform” Chicago public schools. The system is the third largest in the country and has a high percentage of children from low-income families (80 percent of Chicago’s public school attendees qualify for free lunches). To understand what “reform” means to Emanuel, we should take the advice of Deep Throat regarding Watergate: “Follow the money.” It is a good guide to what Chicago is and is not doing for its school children.
“Tax Increment Financing” monies nicely illuminate the real priorities of Mayor Emanuel and the Chicago Board of Education. Earlier this year, Roosevelt University professor Stephanie Farmer’s analysis demonstrated that TIF spending for education over the past two decades has been biased against open-enrollment schools (what we use to call “public schools”). These schools constitute 69 percent of all Chicago schools, but they have received less than 48 percent of TIF money for building maintenance, repair, and upgrading. In revealing contrast, nine selective-enrollment high schools (charter and magnet) that make up 1 percent of the total number of schools got 24 percent of the money spent on school construction projects. Overall, CTU estimates that TIFs remove $250 million a year from Chicago Public Schools. This is almost half of the budget shortfall forecast by the Board of Education.
The charter school mantra reigns supreme in the thinking of both Emanuel and his appointed board. In analyzing the board’s proposed budget, the CTU pointed out that it
increases charter school spending by 17 percent, but does not address the rampant inequality in education programs across the district. In 2002, charter school spending was about $30 million; now, CPS proposes a whopping half-a-billion dollars to a failed reform program that has been shown to provide its students with no better education outcomes.
The last decade has seen a huge growth in (non-unionized) charter schools despite the lack of evidence of their alleged effectiveness. Chicago’s 600-plus schools include 110 charters and another twenty-seven schools run by private firms. Meanwhile, what is the situation for the bulk of Chicago school children? A quarter of the open-enrollment elementary schools have no libraries, 40 percent have neither either art nor music instruction, while many others must choose one or the other but can’t get both.
Mayor Emanuel sends his children to the private Chicago Lab School—where all of these “extras” are available.
Finally, what about the CTU? The union has undergone significant changes in how it functions and defines its constituency. In 2010, Karen Lewis of CORE (Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators) was elected president of the CTU, a victory that was underlined by the success of other CORE candidates for trustees and vice president. Lewis, a former chemistry teacher, immediately set about both democratizing the internal operations of the union and, importantly, building links between the union and parents. Thus, the current strike is not primarily about wages but, as the excellent study produced by CTU puts it, the Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve. The study outlines a vision of the future for Chicago’s school children that is sharply at odds with that of SFC and the mayor but that resonates with parents and children in the schools. CTU’s study calls for the expansion of art and music programs, more “wraparound” services to reach at-risk children, the recognition that class-size matters (Emanuel has talked about going as high as fifty-five students in a class), and equalizing funding across schools. These are all pieces of a vision that should be embraced by true education reformers—but the study has been largely ignored by those who currently run the CPS.
The CTU has laid the groundwork for a true labor-community fight for the future of Chicago’s children and, at the same time, is pointing the way for other public sector unions in this era of austerity for the 99 percent. We should all support them in their time of trial. You can go here for ways to provide that support.
Bill Barclay is a member of the Chicago chapter of Democratic Socialists of America and a member of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign.