Chicago teachers aren’t striking because of pay. They are walking picket lines because they’re sick of so-called education reforms that don’t address the real problems in the schools and instead emphasize privatization and rote testing.
Teachers point out shocking disparities in Chicago’s education system, particularly the lack of resources in schools serving low-income black and Latino students. About 80 percent of Chicago students receive free and reduced lunch.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sends his kids to a private school with three libraries and seven art teachers. But half of Chicago public schools don’t have full-time art and music teachers, 98 don’t have playgrounds, and 160 don’t have libraries. Crumbling facilities sometimes have asbestos insulation poking through the ceilings. One teacher told me her South Side school shares a psychologist with four others. Students traumatized by a string of shootings this year join a growing waitlist to receive the healing they need.
Class size matters, too. Kindergarten and first-grade classrooms in Chicago are bigger than those in 95 percent of all Illinois schools. Emanuel says the city can’t afford the smaller classes the teachers are demanding. But Chicago finds $250 million a year in tax breaks for politically connected developers.
Emanuel and his appointed school board say the best way to deal with struggling public schools is to close them or turn them over to private charter operators. Hedge fund managers seeking new investment opportunities love privatization. Charter schools can be lucrative investments, despite a spotty record. They do no better than traditional schools despite cherry-picking their students.
Emanuel didn’t start this fire. The push to privatize began in the late 1990s. Arne Duncan, former Chicago schools chief and now President Obama’s secretary of education, turbocharged it. He closed more than 100 schools, replacing them with charters. He and Emanuel say the solution is to use students’ standardized test scores to get rid of faltering schools and teachers. Teachers say the evaluations place too much emphasis on bubble-sheet tests, which are an unreliable and narrow measure of a student’s progress. A “drill-and-kill” curriculum has dulled learning.
Emanuel and many in the media are trying to demonize teachers as not caring about students or not working hard. In fact, a University of Illinois study says Chicago teachers work 58 hours a week, grading papers at home, tutoring students before and after school and meeting with parents. Teachers also often provide snacks and supplies to pupils who arrive hungry and ill equipped for class.
If you care about public education, you should stand with the Chicago teachers. They’re fighting for an education system that works for kids in every ZIP code — not just a few.
Theresa Moran is in Chicago covering the strike for Labor Notes, a media and organizing project that supports unions. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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