Monday, September 17, 2012

What's Behind The Chicago Teacher's Strike Is The Future Of Education In America

As the Chicago Teacher's Union strike approaches the one week point, a Chicago judge this morning refused the demand of close Obama ally and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to order teachers back to work by injunction and declare the strike illegal.
Chicago teachers-People's Voice

Although a tentative deal was reached over the weekend, the teachers union negotiating board voted to continue the strike until all teachers can read the agreement, which is delayed until Tuesday in honor of the Jewish New Year holiday Rosh Hashanah. Teachers want to avoid what happened during their last contract negotiations, when the school district, in typing up what was agreed to at the bargaining table, slipped in a sentence saying that the 4 percent raises it agreed to could be withheld if the district couldn't afford it, and the raises weren't paid.

Although the 29,000 teachers at the nation's third largest school district made some concessions in negotiations, Emaunel made even more and teachers prevented the "breakthrough" against union strength Emanuel sought. As a result he is being portrayed in the mainstream media as the loser in the strike, which infuriated him and led him to seek the injunction, where he was again rebuffed.

Chicago teachers rally in Grant Park-Chi Tribune
Emanuel is doubtless under pressure from the Obama campaign to end the strike. The strike enjoys broad support and has the potential to inspire a Wisconsin style or an Occupy style uprising. The strike not only has struck fear in an Obama campaign in the middle of an election but in other big city school boards; as soon as the Chicago strike was called, for instance, the Boston school board settled an impasse with teachers that had been ongoing for two years.

Context and History

Stories about the strike in the mass media display ongoing confusion, owing to confusion in the first stories about the strike that have been endlessly mimicked, and quite a bit of ignorance as to what the strike is over.

Karen Lewis, CPA president- photo Check Please

The importance of the Chicago teacher's strike cannot be understated. Chicago is considered the epicenter of the move by Neoliberalism to destroy public education in America. It is also, under the new leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union, the epicenter of the resistance against it, which is why a majority of Chicago's citizens and 2/3 of Chicago school parents support the strike, despite the Chicago media's blatant bias in favor of the Emanuel narrative that teachers are paid too much and are inept. It's why teachers everywhere and anyone interested in preserving public education are watching Chicago.

At the center of the movement to destroy public education are a host of figures on the Right, like the billionaire children of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, and on the nominal Left figures like Barak Obama, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff and before that a conservative Chicago-area Democratic congressman, Penny Pritzker, heir of the Hyatt Hotel chain, one of Obama's chief fundraisers and one of the prime movers behind education "reform," and Arne Duncan, Obama's Education Secretary and immediately before that the mayoral-appointed czar of the Chicago school system, who instituted the widespread Neoliberal "reform" in Chicago public school system that Emanuel is trying to accelerate and that newly energized rank and file teachers are fighting against and trying to roll back.

Arne Duncan

Rahm Emanuel
Chicago teachers Union (CTA) president Karen Lewis is a chemistry teacher, who, before being elected union president was one of the organizers of a group called the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), which was formed to try to keep neighborhood schools open. The former union leadership's lack of backbone in the face of such Daley-Duncan-Obama "reforms" provided impetus for CORE's formation.

Chicago schools under Duncan became a testing ground for Neoliberal education "reforms" with their mania for merit pay, teacher testing and their promotion of charter schools. Duncan was appointed school czar when former Chicago mayor Richard Daley, another close Obama ally, took over the Chicago public school system in a legislative coup d-etat. The Chicago mayor now appoints the school board.

Karen Lewis-AP
 Make no mistake. The "reforms" are not about improving education, even if some naive proponents think so. They have two primary objectives.

One is breaking the back of the teachers unions, one of the remaining centers of union strength in America. That's where the mania with teacher testing comes in. Neoliberal reformers are trying to break existing union contracts and write new contracts in ways that make teacher employment contingent on test scores, not on the experience and education level of teachers.

A word about the benefits of testing. Tests are pushed incessantly despite there being no evidence that they improve education. Think about that. Mandatory testing is known to force an alteration in teaching so that instead of spending their time helping students learn to think critically and analytically and to ask questions and be curious, teachers must necessarily spend their time "teaching to the test," which amounts to rote memorization of likely test answers. That is not teaching.

Two, education "reforms" are about privatizing public education. That's where charter schools come in. Charters school rules allow anyone to apply for a charter to open a school and many of the recipients of charters are private companies whose goal it is to privatize education and profit from it. Like teacher testing, the privatization movement, which encompasses charter schools, which are free to hire non union teachers, is aimed at defeating the teachers unions.

A word about the benefits of charter schools. There's no evidence either that charter schools have been doing a better job of educating children, despite the fact that they are free to "cherry pick" the best students and send back to the public school any problem students and students who need extra help and despite the fact that they are not required to provide any of the extra assistance "special needs" students require. The data so far shows that, based on those test scores reformers love, charter schools do about the same or slightly worse than regular public schools.


Nowhere have Neoliberal solutions to government and education been pushed harder than in Chicago, under Richard Daley and Arnie Duncan and now Emanuel, and Chicago became the center of the push back with the formation of the movement now headed by current CTA president Karen Lewis.

As Tom Bertenshaw, a self described "conservative" teacher who only recently joined the union and who teaches at the prestigious Lane Tech public school, even teachers assigned to such "high end" public schools where the top students are sent and that receive all the money and supplies they ask for, are fed up with Emanuel's heavy handed way of dealing with teachers. As he and other teachers told Labor Notes, Emanuel's plan to close selected schools and to tie teacher employment to test scores was a blatant attempt to get rid of teachers with experience, simply to save the extra cost of paying them.

In 2010 union elections, Lewis and her CORE movement literally took over the Chicago Teachers Union, occupying all the important positions, and they have been leading the struggle against the Obama-Duncan-Daley-Emmanuel-Pritzker-Walton "reforms." Teachers nationwide are watching the Chicago strike and indeed many are headed for Chicago to participate in supportive rallies.

There is no less at stake than the future of public education in this country. Neoliberalism's goal is the privatization of everything, and inherent in that is the goal of a two tiered society. Not like the one we have now, where the rich can buy out but where someone else can still get a public school education that prepares them for college or anything else their dreams point them toward. Under Neoliberalism, the rich will have their private school system and have no responsibility for funding public schools or the for profit degree mills that replace them, which will exist only to train workers, to prepare the children of the poor to move into the low paying jobs with no future their parents were consigned to.

There is no less at stake in the struggle in Chicago than the future of public schools and public anything. There's no less at stake than the very idea of a commonwealth, the idea that we the people are entitled to hold anything in common whether it be public education, public space, or an old fashioned idea like democracy.



Steven Lendeman, a long time and reliable voice on issues of justice, discusses media attempts, led by the New York Times, to frame the strike unfavorably.

Juan Gonzalez, New York Daily News columnist and occasional Democracy Now host, discusses the Chicago teachers' demands and the rise of the movement led by Karen Lewis.

Note: It is illegal for teachers in Chicago to strike over non pay issues. Pay is an issue for Chicago teachers but not the reason for the strike. The reason is to save Chicago's public schools from drastic Neoliberal "reforms." For legal purposes, pay had to be given as the reason for the strike, which may have led to the initial media reports saying the strike was about pay. 


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