Chicago youth cheer squad tossing each other over the Buckingham fountain; photo by Xian Franzinger Barrett.
Update: The Chicago Teachers Union announced a tentative contract agreement with the school board minutes before a strike deadline at midnight on Monday, October 10. Teachers and students went back to school on Tuesday, October 11, after a marathon bargaining session.
The new contract still needs to pass a vote by the full union membership, but union leaders were cautiously optimistic. In this post, rank-and-file Chicago Teachers Union member Xian Franzinger Barrett explains why he supported the strike, and why the fight for education justice will continue in Chicago.
It was not with sorrow or disappointment but with joy that my wife and I joined thousands of our Chicago Teachers Union colleagues in voting for a potential strike October 11. As professional educators, we welcome the strike.
We cast our votes from the hospital room where our daughter had just been born. We are aware of the sacrifices we’ll be forced to make, and the sacrifices of parents and students (meanwhile the school board and its lawyers will continue to collect their generous compensation for not running the school district). We simply have to take a stand.
When we look into our baby’s eyes, we dream of everything we want for her. In a few short years, we will be walking her up the street to our neighborhood school. That school is about 90 percent low income and multilingual. We want our child to have a safe school environment in a community where she is affirmed and loved. We want an environment where every child is accepted without an application and restorative justice programs prevent the criminalization of youth. We want arts, physical education, sex ed and social justice education to support our daughter's development. We want reasonable class sizes. If she has a disability, we want her to have an individualized education plan that supports her unique needs. We want the school to be clean, free of lead and properly heated. We want her to have access to healthy, delicious food, a nurse, social workers and psychologists. We want her to have a space for recess and physical activity breaks. We want her to have access to a diverse and generous library. We want her to have access to sports, extra and co-curricular activities and engaging experiential field trips. We want her teachers to be respected for their expertise and not distracted and fearful of a draconian evaluation system. We want those teachers’ voices to carry real power in the school through their membership in a union. She deserves everything that the mayor’s own kids get for their education by virtue of being a human kid with human rights.
In Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Public Schools, all of these dreams have been eroded. This summer our school's funding was cut despite increased enrollment. And across the district, many of these basic tenets of a equitable, world-class education have been taken away from students.
So while a strike represents struggle, it represents beautiful struggle. Rather than accepting Chicago leadership's conviction that our daughter and her peers are born inferior and less deserving of educational opportunities than the mayor’s children, we have the opportunity to stand together and rebel against that notion.
A strike is a beautiful rainstorm upon a parched field.
As a teacher, I love nurturing literacy and academic, social, and moral excellence in a classroom. I love seeing the beautiful growth that comes as students develop their own power within a social movement. In a strike, students learn from their teachers how to harvest brilliant, life-changing lessons.
Last week, as we at the Chicago Teachers Union prepared to vote for a second time whether to endorse our current strike plan, the Chicago Tribune ran an editorial comparing the union leaders to Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Un. I began to prepare an angry response, but then I looked into the face of my one-day-old daughter and future Chicago public school student, Xiobhan–our Baby X. I realized there were more important things to do than argue with an editorial board that has also advocated for a district “financial turnaround specialist,” comparing it to Best Buy and Old Navy, and that actually wished for a Hurricane Katrina in Chicago (to wipe away a system that serves a student body more than 90 percent kids of color) in order to “reset” the district and give it a “makeover.”
If I’ve learned anything in this fight, it’s that in addition to resisting evil ideas, we must reflect and build visions of justice in our own communities. So I thought back to the last strike and what we have learned.
In 2012 I wrote this piece for my blog on why we teachers felt the need to strike. It went viral, I think, because it really touched people’s hearts to read how we were driven to strike by the pain we feel witnessing how poorly our system treats kids. Eight years ago a small group of us, led by Jackson Potter and Al Ramirez, formed the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), committed to bending the long arc of Chicago education toward justice. After four years we had swelled from a group of a dozen or so progressive educators to leading a nearly thirty-thousand-member teachers union to the picket line for justice. I mentored a student, Jakie Rodriguez, who created a 13,000-member student strike group. I was elated by the dozens of students who joined us on the picket line at Gage Park High School to support the strike, and to make it their own.
With all that to be proud of, following CTU’s announcement of a second CORE-led strike October 11, we face a difficult time. To be blunt, all of CORE’s strong work has not been enough to save Chicago public education. Despite a strike to stave off some of the most destructive proposals, the conditions in schools for our students are substantially worse than they were in 2012. Not only has funding been diverted from public neighborhood schools to privately run schools, but even in schools that have the same number of students, contractual fraud, debt mismanagement and political cronyism have left students with fewer resources. They’ve lost libraries, nurses, reasonable class sizes, extra curricular activities, and co-curricular programs. As these cuts send schools into chaos, families with the option often choose to flee the city entirely—and the cycle continues. Even key contractual items we’ve won as the result of striking have become nearly unenforceable as administrations have simply ignored the contract, as well as municipal and federal laws designed to protect students.
In thinking about the impending strike, I am concerned that at the bargaining table we’ll settle for a few deck chairs rearranged. By itself, a typical strike won’t be enough. Here’s what we have to do:
- We must compromise nothing when it comes to the basic human rights of the students we serve. We must rebel when CPS lawyers tell us that the union cannot make the district staff classrooms where students are sitting without a teacher. We must insist on the basic rights of the children we teach, and point out that they certainly they don’t allow their own children to be treated in the same way.
- We must not confine the battle to the bargaining table. We must act, teach, demand and prevent business as usual. We must deny our labor, and we must meet our communities in the streets.
- We must not lose sight that this is a fight between oppressors and communities. It is not simply between the board of education or the mayor and ourselves.
- We must measure our worth as educators by the power our students grow into. The education we are fighting for belongs 100 percent to the students we serve and their families. We must engage them and ensure we do not walk away with a compromise that is untenable for the kids.
I believe our students are ready for this fight because I’ve seen it in my own students. They’ve attended board meetings and visited political offices. They’ve written pieces for local and national publications. They’ve confronted our board president at his home.
I was laid off from CPSD in August, and this past month has been difficult as my students have returned to school and and I am not there to see them every day. I feel blessed that they’ve bridged this distance with daily written pieces, texts, Facebook messages and well wishes.
The salvation for our education system and our society is buried in the hearts and minds of our students.
So I ask all of you to engage your own students or your community and ask these questions:
- Does corporate-led education properly serve students? What’s good about it? What does community-led reform look like?
- How should students' needs be represented when the future of the district is being bargained?
- As social movements such as the Movement for Black Lives and the movement for educational justice sweep our nation, how will you be involved? What help do you need to be involved?
- How should Chicago students be involved in the upcoming strike? How can you best learn from it?
Feel free to email me what you find, and I will share some of the answers including from my own former students next week before the strike. The enemy is at our door, but we are not lost. Our students are the leaders we’ve been waiting for. Baby X and all of Chicago’s children deserve the same supports that the city’s richest residents ensure for their own children. We must disrupt until that principle is a reality.
Xian Franzinger Barrett and his wife Erin welcome their daughter Xiobhan Rocío into the world. Both educators, Xian and Erin are on leave from Chicago Public Schools following Xiobhan's premature birth. You can follow Xian on Twitter @xianb8.