From the new January-February 2013 issue of News & Letters:
Editor’s note: Below we print excerpts from the News and Letters Committees panel discussion of teachers and education activists on the September strike by members of the Chicago Teachers Union. Daily mass demonstrations and solidarity from teachers and city residents extracted some concessions from the previously intransigent Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Chicago–While there are many similarities from one district to another on education issues such as salary, medical benefits, or class size, there are also many differences: poverty levels, linguistic differences which might necessitate bilingual classes, violence in the area, the tax base and so on. There is no one-size-fits-all analysis of the crisis in education today.
Over 70% of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) ratified the current contract, which according to many experts isn’t that great. They mainly got an increase in salary. What was their other great success, according to CTU President Karen Lewis? That they actually had textbooks available the first day of school. How insane is that?
Schools have become, more and more, the only home many children know. What were Chicago teachers saying leading up to the strike? That they were concerned children weren’t going to be receiving breakfast and lunch in the schools. Those are, in many instances, the only regular meals some children have.
The local school is probably the safest thing around in many neighborhoods, despite many problems. There is a structure, and children need structure. There is a routine that can be counted on. Children need that, too. So many families are in a constant state of chaos and dysfunction because of the poverty, homelessness and violence caused by the economic chaos we live under.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is proud of saying that students now have a longer school day. But one teacher put it very succinctly: “What difference does it make to keep them in school longer if you’ve got a building that’s falling apart, no air conditioning, no heat in winter, no working computers, no library books, class sizes over 45 students?”
–Erica Rae, K-12 teacher
The unfolding crisis in education has its roots in the 1970s, in the economic, social and political crisis. The ruling class was determined to solve that crisis at the expense of the working class and what many would consider the middle class, as well as the poor.
I would encourage everyone to read a very thoughtful memorandum written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by Lewis Powell before he was on the Supreme Court. He was very clear, very strategic and well organized–a model of class consciousness. He argued that the institutions of capitalism were under attack by the women’s movement, which was challenging male domination; the civil rights movement; the anti-war movement which had evolved into an anti-imperialist movement; the radicalization of sections of the working class, including wildcat strikes.
His argument was that the ruling class needed to change the discourse. That’s the birth of the modern think tanks. They had their think tanks write the laws to re-establish ruling class domination. From the economic crisis and mass layoffs evolved open unionbusting under President Ronald Reagan–but the plans were drawn up under President Jimmy Carter. This was a bi-partisan effort.
For example, former Vice-President Al Gore was head of a committee that specialized in privatizing the federal government. My union, AFSCME, bragged in its literature about participating in this. They had privatized over 350,000 full-time federal jobs. We are seeing this now in education with a national movement basically to destroy the teachers’ unions. After having gutted most of the private sector unions, with the collaboration of most of the top union leadership, they are moving on to the public sector unions–of which teachers are the largest.
They are turning everything that’s possible into a commodity. Charter schools can be run at a profit. They began as vehicles of teachers’ unions, to have experimentation in different teaching methods. They were taken over by investment bankers and others who saw money-making opportunities.
–Earl S., retired teacher
The content of this attack on public education is not simply a question of wages. It’s about shrinking the size of public schools in this society. It is about writing off a huge section of the working class.
I spent my last two years as a teacher in a closing, failing high school. We watched them take the computers out of our rooms and move them to the charter school in the same building.
If we are ever going to organize a strike over the conditions that would make teaching possible, we should demand massive public housing programs, social workers in schools, and social services for all the things students need; a shorter work week so parents can be home and support kids; decent healthcare; all the other conditions that make it possible for children to learn.
There are lab schools with five or seven full-time art teachers. These are the schools that Mayor Emanuel’s kids go to. They have a library, they have physical education. Do you have those in the public schools?
Then there are the bells and whistles: cultural opportunities, zoos, summer camps, trips, overseas vacations. Home libraries for every kid. You want to help my kids perform? Give me the control over all the things that affect their ability to learn.
And then when you tell me the teachers are asking for too much, be really glad that the teachers are so patient!
–Tina B., retired teacher
I’m not a union member. I’m not in the Chicago Teachers Union, although I’m a facilitator of education in my children’s lives. I have four kids who have been part of the Chicago public school system.
Everyone took notice of the teachers’ strike, and was happy to see the little guys standing up against the giant, saying, “I’m not going to take this anymore.” It was very exciting to have my kids out there seeing thousands and thousands of red shirts, the solidarity and spirit of the workers. My kids got a lot of education out there on the picket line with me doing the commentary.
There needs to be more communication between the teachers and the parents. I knew there was a strike coming, but that’s from working in the Occupy movement and with the solidarity campaign. For the parents of the average kid, this came as a surprise.
Parents count on schools to feed children, educate them, shelter them. For that to be removed for a week and a half got a lot of parents’ attention. A lot of them said, dang, we didn’t know it was so bad for teachers.
Teachers are unique. They aren’t plumbers or carpenters, because the products are our children. You have to take special consideration when striking. Children and parents should be at the negotiating table. There should be an intentional commitment of the teachers’ union to work with the parents. It would be great to have teachers support a student-led action.
I haven’t seen thousands of teachers protest the violence in the streets, but it would be very good to see that.
–Marissa B., Black mother, Occupy the Southside activist