Chicago Schoolteachers’ Strike

We hope Kapil Sibal is watching the schoolteachers’ strike in Obama’s home constituency of Chicago. Sibal, as India’s HRD Minister, is pushing for an education system that is increasingly more privatised, and he is doing so based on the wisdom peddled by the US-backed World Bank and IMF. In the US itself, school teachers and students are beginning to protest privatisation and ‘reforms’.

The US itself has traditionally enjoyed a strong publicly funded school system. But increasingly, in the US too, schooling is facing huge subsidy cuts, rendering students and teachers both vulnerable and deprived. The Chicago strike highlighted some of the major issues of struggling schools in the US.

In Chicago, the public school teachers’ union took on the powerful Mayor Rahm Emanuel, formerly Obama’s White House Chief of Staff and with well known right-wing positions on war and Palestine.

Emanuel had pushed education ‘reforms’ calling for teacher evaluation based on standardised tests for students. Schools in which students performed poorly would be closed and reopened with new staff, or converted to ‘charter’ schools that are ‘non-union’ and run by private groups.

Protesting this move, teachers demanded more resources for the neighborhood public schools. They pointed out that many of their students come from poor and crime-ridden areas; circumstances that affect their performance in school. More than 80 percent of public school students qualify for free meals based on low family incomes. Laying off teachers and privatising schools won’t help students learn better.

Eventually the teachers won a respite, beating back attempts by Emanuel to get a court order against the strike. They called off the strike after a week, when a contract was agreed upon, whereby the Mayor was forced to concede several compromises. According to the contract, students’ test results will be taken into consideration in teacher evaluation, but not to the extent that Emanuel had sought.

President Barack Obama remained conspicuously silent throughout on this confrontation in his home city Chicago, between a Union that is known to support him, and his former key aide.

Though the teachers have won a battle, the war is far from won. A teacher described the situation (Kevin Lee,, Wednesday 19 September 2012):

“I still worry about the disconnect between a misguided education ‘reform’ movement and the disadvantages my students face...For 10 days, the teachers’ strike had drawn me into the picket line and massive street demonstrations. ... Any teacher in red was a comrade-in-arms, someone with which to share war stories of 95°F schoolrooms, kindergarten classes of 40 students, leaking roofs and crazed administrators.

...As for the outlined deal, the proposed contract language has some cost-of-living salary increases, some slight changes in benefits and sick days and various other slight changes to clauses involving grievance procedures and office supplies. Most of the feared changes that the board of education was threatening to impose unilaterally have been blunted. But anxieties remain.

We still worry about job security. We see public schools across our city drained of resources, set up to fail and eventually closed, with all of the teachers – good and bad – laid off. Some of the closed schools become charter schools: private schools financed with public money, churning out private profit. Others become “turn-around” schools, reorganized around the latest educational fad. Those who make decisions about closing schools seem to see education as a product, and schools as factories for that product; the true value of schools to their communities and as anchors of stability for their students is overlooked.

We worry, too, about the new accountability scheme. Our teaching evaluations will now be based on a point system, and 30% of the points will be, essentially, a randomly generated number. It is called “value-added-assessment”, and theoretically, it measures gains students make that can be attributed to a teacher. Districts where this has been tried (in Tennessee and New York) have not been able to correlate the numbers generated by value-added-assessment to anything a teacher actually does in the classroom.

And we worry about the dignity of the teaching profession. Too many “educational” leaders treat teaching as an industrial process rather than as a skilled creative endeavour. Not a single member of the board of education has any experience in the classroom: public education, for them, is a mere hobby. Far removed from the realities of the classroom and the poverty of many of our students, they attempt to reduce teaching to reading from a script and to testing, ignoring the input of real teachers in favour of consultants and cronies.

And, of course, there are all of the issues that will never be settled by any labour contract. The politics of education continues to be treacherous for those who have made the commitment to make a career in the classroom. Much of the current national education “reform” movement started right here in Chicago. Perhaps, though, we have now started something new for education in this same city with the stand we took over this strike.

In the meantime, Chicago continues to be the most racially segregated city in our republic, with the most segregated schools. Some of us teach under the shadow of grinding poverty and despair. The inequities of class and race (exacerbated by inequities in school funding, even within the same school district) are ever-present in our classrooms.”

(Cartoons accompanying this report are courtesy the popular American cartoon strip, Stone Soup)

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