The Chicago Teachers Union: A New Hope for Public Education

CTU Labor Day Rally. Credit: CTU Facebook Page

Credit to Miriam of for giving me the idea for this post. Watch for it as a guest-post there later today. Will also show up on and marooned on the subway.

After months of deadlocked negotiations with the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education, the 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union began their first strike in 25 years today, shutting down over 600 schools that serve over 400,000 students.  The 600 delegates of the CTU voted unanimously in favor of the measure at a meeting August 31, two months after 98 percent of members who cast a ballot authorized the union to call a strike.

Education activists across this country have greeted the CTU’s fight with much enthusiasm, for they see it as a fight for everything they believe in. Many think this strike has the potential to turn the tide against those who wish to privatize our schools and slash budgets across the country. Moreover, as perhaps the largest, best-organized strike since the 1997 UPS strike, it could re-ignite the American labor movement after decades of decline.

In this post I’ll attempt to put the struggle within the context of the nation-wide neoliberal attack on public education, go over the details specific to the fight in Chicago, and explain why you should be siding with the teachers and with universal, high-quality, fully-funded public education.

The Charter Menace

A charter school is a publicly-funded school that is not subject to the same rules and regulations as a regular public school, often run by non-governmental groups. As of December 2011, 2 million students attended the 5,600 charter schools in the US. This number has been increasing by 7 percent annually since 2006 [PDF]. Charter schools have been touted as the saviors of American education, perhaps most famously in the documentary Waiting for “Superman” by Davis Guggenheim. They have become something of a cause célèbre among America’s billionaires, like Bill Gates and various Wall Street philanthropists. They enjoy bipartisan support, taking an important role in Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and an even more important one in Obama’s Race To The Top.

But as I’ve learned these past few years, when the two parties in Washington agree on some issue, we have very good reason to be worried. Charter schools are no exception. A widely-cited study from Stanford University shows that though 17 percent of charter schools deliver the promised improvements, 37 percent actually perform worse than traditional public schools [PDF]. The ‘flexibility’ and ‘autonomy’ of charters may sound like good things in the abstract, but they’re of no use if they can’t produce better results. So why on Earth would so many influential people throw their weight behind a project that for the most part either changes nothing or actually makes education worse for American children?

Defenders of charter schools, like a certain ruling class rag, often point to the charters that do deliver spectacular results, and say that we just need to replicate that in all the other charters. But a closer look makes that picture seem implausible. One of the charters that’s often (rightfully) praised for its results is SEED, a boarding school in DC. What they don’t usually mention is that SEED spends $35,000 per student, while traditional public schools spend about a third of that on average. Another advantage of charters that’s often left unspoken is that, unlike neighborhood schools, charter schools are allowed to get rid of under-performing students as they please. Geoffrey Canada’s charter schools in Harlem, another oft-praised project, made extreme use of this privilege when they kicked out an entire class of middle school students for not being up to par. So it’s no surprise that they are able to perform better than traditional public schools: they can just get rid of anyone who could drag their scores down.

Finally, teachers from charter schools are generally not unionized. This may sound like a good thing to many in the current political climate, in which politicians on both sides of the aisle enjoy blaming teachers and their unions for the problems of public education. But the data do not lie: according to a well-regarded study from Arizona State University [PDF summary], schools with unionized teachers tend to produce better results. This should be common sense. Unions can bargain for better pay, better working conditions, and increased job security, all of which can attract better teachers, who can in turn provide a better education to students.

Of course, there are many other sources of threats to American public education, but I would clog the intertubes if I tried to write about all of them. A notable example is “Parent Trigger” laws, which would allow parents to take over an under-performing school and do with it as they please, including turning it into a charter schools. Such laws sound nice, even democratic in the abstract. But if we remove the sheep’s clothing that disguises them, we are left with just another plan to privatize public education. Like charter schools, parent trigger laws also have the support of the nation’s billionaires, as well as their own awful piece of Hollywood propaganda (which was apparently showed at the start of the DNC).

Not to mention more long-standing issues that have always plagued education in the United States. For example, since education is mostly funded by property taxes, poorer neighborhoods have always had lower-quality education, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Given the ample evidence for the failure of charter schools, I find no satisfactory answer for why anyone who genuinely wants to improve American education would support them. We must accept that American elites have no intention of improving public schools—after all, they can afford to send their kids to fancy private schools. The insistence on charters is not born out of compassion, but out of the realization that politicians cannot admit they want to gut public education and still tell their constituents they believe in the ideals of a liberal democracy. As Prof. Sanford Schram of Bryn Mawr has said, charter schools and other neoliberal reforms of the welfare state are merely Plan B for the world’s capitalists: a pragmatic response to the political impossibility of getting rid of welfare completely.

Let us now turn to how all of this is playing out in the city that gave birth to neoliberal ideology.

Rahm Emanuel Strikes Back

Rahm Emanuel at Obama’s Inauguration

Though Rahm presented himself as a ‘progressive’ guy when he was running for Mayor of Chicago, like all Democrats, his love for unions and public goods stops when he actually has to deal with them. As Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader has pointed out, Rahm’s plan could easily have been written by Mitt Romney’s aides (or perhaps been a part of Obama’s war on schools). Charter schools are the linchpin of Rahm’s plan for Chicago Public Schools, with 110 of them already up and running. The current, much protested CPS budget allocates $76 million to charter schools, a significant increase from last year’s budget. And surprise! Like elsewhere in the country, Chicago’s charter schools show no improvement over their more traditional counterparts.

To be fair to Rahm, he didn’t start Chicago’s charter school craze. It all goes back to Arne Duncan, the previous CEO of CPS (yes, they have a CEO). And guess what? He’s now Obama’s Secretary of Education. Looks like no attack on public education goes unrewarded in this country.

Merely adding charter schools to CPS wouldn’t sound so horrible, if it weren’t coupled with Rahm’s plan to get rid of Chicago’s failing schools. It begins with defunding: underperfoming schools get decreased budgets because CPS is suffering from a deficit. Faced with fewer teachers, crumbling facilities, and cuts in programs, parents flock to shiny new charter schools, which seems like the smart choice, given that they seem to be getting all the money. As a result, neighborhood schools have fewer students and worse results. CPS then uses this as an excuse to close or “turn around” schools—17 of them just last year.

Turnaround schools are schools that get restructured and put under a committee specially appointed to oversee their renewal. Most of the teachers and staff get kicked out, meaning that students are practically attending a new school. This seems like another kind-hearted plan to fix up Chicago’s failing education system, but the reality is far from it. The experienced teachers that get laid off are replaced with new hires, who not only get paid less, but are also worse for the kids, since years of experience is the most important factor in a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. In fact, turnaround schools underperform democratically-run schools by quite a margin.

As if that weren’t enough, turnarounds and closings disproportionately affect the neighborhoods of Chicago that most need quality education. Numerous studies have shown that socioeconomic class is the biggest predictor of student success or failure. And since social class and race are strongly tied in this country, that also means closings disproportionately affect black and latino students, who tend to live in the same neighborhoods in this highly segregated city.

Add to that Rahm’s plan for improving things: getting rid of the current pay system that rewards teacher experience, and instead reward teachers according to their students’ scores. That is, pay teachers that teach in poor neighborhoods less, and teachers that teach in fancy magnet schools more. Surely that will attract all the good teachers to the poor schools!

All of these “reforms” are being delivered by CPS’s Board of Education, which is appointed personally by the Mayor. The board is composed primarily of corporate executives, and has shown its ineffectiveness when compared to democratically elected school boards.

The situation is so dire it’s hard to think of anything we could do to help it. But thankfully, the Chicago Teachers Union has decided to take a stand and fight back against the education ‘deformers.’

The Return of the Teachers

CTU “ON STRIKE” picket signs. Credit: CTU Facebook Page

Now that the strike’s started, the airwaves will be flooded with pundits talking about how greedy the teachers are for wanting a raise that keeps up with inflation. But even though pay and benefits is all they’re allowed to talk about in negotiations with CPS according to state law, don’t let the media fool you: this struggle is about much more. It is about the soul of public education.

You can see it in the picket signs, you can feel it in conversations with teachers. They’re not just fighting for fair pay, though they obviously deserve that, too. They’re fighting for public education that’s freely accessible to all. Schools that won’t turn someone down because they didn’t win a lottery or because they have a learning disability. Schools with nurses (Chicago’s 684 schools are served by only 202 nurses) and libraries (164 schools are missing one). Schools that teach the arts and music and make well-rounded citizens, not just cheap workers to serve the needs of capital. Schools that provide a comprehensive education, because teachers know that teaching the test is not the way to educate a child. They want quality schools for all students, and not one kind of school for the rich white kids in the North Side and another for the poor black children in the South Side.

They don’t just want these things, they also know how to get them. Everyone should read their wonderful, well-researched proposal titled The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve. The Chicago Teacher’s Union has been fighting for these reforms for years, and not through the usual, top-down, “Don’t worry, the union bureaucracy will take care of it for you” approach many unions use. They’ve involved every member in a grassroots struggle to get back our schools from those who wish to turn them into baby-sitting businesses.

And if you don’t buy the baby-sitting business line, just read CPS’s guidelines for dealing with kids in their strike contingency plan. According to the Sun-Times, “non-teachers are told that when they ‘correct’ a student, they should do so in a ’15 second one-way communication,’ delivered within 3 to 4 feet of the student, but to ‘move away from the student 1-2 seconds before finishing.'”

This is not to downplay the inconveniences that parents and students will suffer due to the strike. Many poorer students relied on CPS for breakfasts and lunches, and many parents have no place to leave their kids other than at schools. Teachers are well aware of the damage this disruption in class schedules may have for students. But as one community organizer has said, it is current conditions that are most disruptive. In her words: “the disruption of not having air conditioning, or not having libraries in their schools.…When CPS closes their schools instead of investing in the schools, that’s what’s disruptive to students. And when CPS forces students in classrooms with 35 or 40 other children, that’s what’s long-term disruptive for our children.”

This strike has the potential to turn back the tide in favor of real education reform nationally. Teachers across the country are now looking to Chicago for hope and inspiration. Messages of solidarity  have been pouring in from every city in this country, and even some from abroad. Community and labor groups across Chicago have coalesced in the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign in order to support teachers in their struggle. And you can help too! Join us on the picket lines as we fight to beat back the corporate attack on our schools!