‘We’re going to fight for what’s right for the kids’: Chicago teachers on why they’re striking

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Chicago teachers walk a picket line outside Benjamin Banneker Elementary School in Chicago, Monday, Sept. 10, 2012, after they went on strike for the first time in 25 years.
Chicago teachers walk a picket line outside Benjamin Banneker Elementary School in Chicago, Monday, Sept. 10, 2012, after they went on strike for the first time in 25 years.
M. Spencer Green / AP

At midnight on Monday morning, the Chicago Teachers Union officially began its first strike in 25 years, shutting down the city’s public school system and leaving parents to find other accommodations for their children during the day. The union, which represents some 26,000 teachers and other school staff, cited concerns over job security, benefits, compensation, and inadequate air conditioning for classes. Several teachers told Lean Forward that they consider the fight to be less about their own working conditions than about the quality of education they’re able to offer students.

“People continue to characterize this as a fight only about money,” said Anthony James, one such teacher. “This is a fight for public education and, thus, for our children.”

“Every CTU member has a list of indignancies to their students that they witness, which builds over time and results with we’re that,” said Xian Barrett, another public school teacher. To the extent that compensation and benefits are an issue, ”I’d say the disrespect involved was probably greater than the exact salary issue itself.” As an example, he pointed to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to renege on an earlier agreement that would have given every teacher a four percent raise.

Good salaries and benefits are still at the top of the union’s demands. “Recognizing the [Chicago Education] Board’s fiscal woes, we are not far apart on compensation,” said CTU President Karen Lewis in a statement. “However, we are apart on benefits. We want to maintain the existing health benefits.” Chicago public schools are facing down a projected $665 million budget gap.

Lewis added, “While new Illinois law prohibits us from striking over the recall of laid-off teachers and compensation for a longer school year, we do not intend to sign an agreement until these matters are addressed.” CTU and the mayor’s office have been at odds over a plan to increase the length of the school day without proportionately increasing teachers’ salaries.

In July, a fact-finding report [PDF] by representatives from the union and the Board of Education found that the plan would have increased the work required of union members by 19.4 percent. The report recommended additional compensation for the extended hours.

Emanuel, speaking to the press, called the strike “a strike of choice” and said the two remaining points of contention were over school staffing decisions and teacher evaluations. According to a Chicago Public Schools statement released the day before the strike, the Board of Education’s final offer—deemed a “fair and reasonable proposal”—included a 16 percent salary increase, support for laid off teachers, and “improved monitoring of class size issues.”

Teacher evaluations also loom large as a concern. John Kuijper, a Chicago teacher and CTU member, said evaluation programs like Race to the Top are, ”turning schools into test prep factories, because they’re tying teacher ratings directly to how students do” on standardized tests.

At issue is also class size, and what the Chicago Teachers Union says is inadequate—or nonexistent—air conditioning in many classrooms. “When you make me cram 30-50 kids in my classroom with no air conditioning so that temperatures hit 96 degrees, that hurts our kids,” wrote Barrett at his blog Teacher X.

It is these kinds of conditions that are leading students to picket as well. High school sophomore Maribel Sandoval, 15, say that she and hundreds of her classmates have turned out to support the teachers. “Last week a number of students, they passed out because of the heat in the school,” she said. “The way things are going, it’s just not working out for any of us.”

Lack of resources is an issue as well, she said. “We don’t have enough resources—books and all of that—for school. I had to share a book with two or three other students. And the amount of students in class is ridiculous.”

Kuijper said that structural problems in the city’s education system had led the teachers’ union to this point. In particular, he pointed to increased funding for charter schools, at the expense of public school coffers. ”What we’re really asking for is equity,” he said. “Every charter school I’ve ever been in has iPads. In every classroom, they have smartboards, they have air conditioning. We have none of that. It’s creating two separate and unequal systems.”

Chicago’s charter schools, whose employees are non-union, will remain open for the duration of the strike. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his predecessor Richard Daley have both been long time charter school expansion advocates, while teachers unions typically oppose the creation of schools with non-union (and frequently less well-compensated) staff.

“The charter schools in our area do not deliver a superior education, but they do very aggressive marketing campaigns, and they do tend to steer away from the students with highest needs and require more resources to educate,’ said Barrett. “We’re left with a situation where we have not enough resources to educate the remaining students who may be coming in with more challenges.”

Kuijper blasted the education infrastructure Emanuel is working to create as “a two-tiered system with the haves and have nots, where you have people attending the charter system who are most compliant, most ready for charter school life.”

“This only happens for certain races and classes of students,” he went on. “It would never happen in the suburbs which are mostly white.” A recent New York Times report suggested that charter schools have contributed significantly to the resegregation of New York’s own education system.

University of Oregon professor Gordon Lafer, an expert in labor law, said, “A lot of people around the country are looking at this as a stand of the teachers’ union against … a set of things which people with money or political power, such as Mayor Emanuel, do not accept for their own kids.” Powerful school reform advocates like Emanuel, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and philanthropist Bill Gates “all send their children to schools with small class sizes and face-to-face instruction.”

Of the “two-tiered system,” he said, “the teachers’ union is really the only political counterweight of any significance to that trend.”

While Kuijper said that charter schools were better funded and had superior accommodations, he pointed to research by the Economic Policy Institute that suggests, on balance, they don’t have a better record than full public schools. The real advantage of charter schools, he argued, was that they lack accountability or transparency.

“I worked in a high-performing charter school for a year,” he said. His school “issued demerits to students if they had their shoes untied. After four demerits they go to Saturday detention. After 12 Saturday detentions, you may not get your credit for freshman year.”

“They bully these students into absurd degrees of compliance,” he said. ”In effect, they’re creating a private school culture.”

But for Barrett, there’s far more at stake. “I think what we’re seeing in Chicago is a different way of seeing a union’s role, and a community’s voice, in education,” he said. “That’s hard for people who are used to having a unilateral role in education decisions.”

“We’re going to fight as long as we need to fight,” said Kuijper. “We’re going to fight for what’s right for kids.”

Mitt Romney has weighed in on the strike, trying to tie the Chicago Teachers Union to the Obama administration. In a statement,he said that President Obama had sided with the teachers’ unions, whereas he chose to “side with the parents and students depending on public schools.” Obama has not yet spoken publicly about the strike.

Mitt Romney

'We're going to fight for what's right for the kids': Chicago teachers on why they're striking

Updated