The beloved former president of the Chicago Teachers Union who has been sidelined by a brain tumor, Karen Lewis released a statement on Tuesday night to urge Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, to find a way to resolve the then nine-day teachers’ strike. Lewis concluded her statement with the words of Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.”
The primary issues underneath the recent Chicago teachers’ strike, tentatively ended around midnight on Wednesday, were shockingly inadequate services for children and two decades of the disempowerment of school teachers in Chicago. To fully ratify the agreement, all 25,000 members of of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) must vote within ten days.
Just as teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles and Oakland publicly exposed deplorable conditions in underfunded public schools and in school districts where sizeable portions of the budgets have been diverted to charter schools, Chicago’s strike focused on the conditions in which Chicago’s teachers are forced to teach and their students are expected to learn.
The Chicago strike was never really about teachers’ pay. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially offered teachers a 16 percent raise over five years, and the teachers eventually accepted that offer. Some people criticized teachers, because Lightfoot’s original offer seemed generous. So why did they strike?
You have only to look at what teachers—in the final contract—accepted as an improvement in school staffing to grasp the deficient conditions Chicago’s leaders have ignored during years of austerity and disruptive corporate school reform. From the Chicago Sun-Times: “The union received a guarantee that there will be a full-time dedicated nurse and social worker in every school by July 2023 with staffing ramping up from now till then. On class size, a new joint council will be created to address overcrowding. The council will get weekly updated data and will have $35 million per year to address situations on a case-by-case basis. Overcrowded classrooms will only get relief, however, when they hit certain hard caps. Those limits are: 32 students in a K-3 class, 35 kids in grades 4-8, and 32 students in core high school classes. The district’s guidelines for normal-sized classes—ones it says it ‘shall aspire to stay within’—are 32 for K-3, 31 for grades 4-8 and 25 for core high school classes.”
Chicago’s top school reporter, WBEZ‘s Sarah Karp describes the real subject of this Chicago teachers’ strike: “The strike… did something else, beyond just producing a contract that includes language on and money for lower classes and more staffing. It shined a light on the barebones conditions common in many Chicago schools. Sharkey (CTU president Jesse Sharkey) declared at one rally that the strike was a revolt by all the people who work in or are impacted by Chicago Public Schools. He often said the strike was about educational justice. For decades, Chicagoans had gotten used to schools with the bare minimum numbers of nurses, social workers, counselors, librarians, even teachers. And in the last decade of budget cuts and austerity, these staff became more scarce at many schools… In press conferences and at rallies, teachers, social workers, special education teacher assistants and even athletic coaches talked passionately about how their schools lacked resources commonplace in most other school districts. Many teachers talked about having 40-plus students in their classrooms and they did not have any recourse. The teachers talked about how they often had to serve as nurses or social workers because these staff were only available one or two days a week. One preschool teacher talked about how having too many children in preschool classes left some students sitting in urine for hours. Other teachers talked about how they had no help for traumatized students. Athletic coaches said needed equipment was so sparse they often used their paltry stipends to buy bats and bases. One softball coach said her team picks up broken glass and other trash before starting practice… And to perhaps the surprise of Mayor Lightfoot, many parents stood by the teachers. Parents said they knew firsthand how bad conditions were because their children were living it.”
It is easy these days to extract a particular event out of its historical context. The 24/7 news shifts the focus to sensational details, disagreements, and rancor. But Chicago’s teachers made it clear from the outset that remediating the 25 year disempowerment of Chicago’s teachers was also a primary goal of this strike. Chicago teachers have been pawns again and again as politicians enacted plans that undermined Chicago teachers’ control over the circumstances in which they teach and their students learn.
In 1995, Mayor Richard M. Daley got the legislature to grant him mayoral control and, in the same law, a provision that has banned the right of Chicago’s teachers to strike over any issue apart from salary and fringe benefits. In 2004 the same mayor, along with appointed corporate reformer CEO Paul Vallas and his assistant Arne Duncan, disrupted the Chicago schools with Renaissance 2010 to close schools and open charters. Mayor Rahm Emanual intensified corporate school reform by instituting student based budgeting, which combined school choice with a plan to let the money follow the child. This sort of policy is central to what is known as “portfolio” school reform, in which a district sheds its weakest schools and opens new ones. As children choose schools perceived to be winners, student based budgeting begins a downward spiral in schools that are losing students, as principals with ever-decreasing budgets shed the counselors and librarians they can no longer afford and increase class size. University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing documents widespread community grieving on Chicago’s South and West Sides for the closure of institutions long valued as anchors of their neighborhoods.
In last week’s negotiations, CTU demanded that Mayor Lightfoot agree as part of the contract to support legislation in Springfield to return Chicago’s schools to an elected school board, and to support legislation once-again to permit Chicago’s teachers to bargain about the conditions in their schools and not merely salary and benefits. Lightfoot refused. While, Mayor Lightfoot agreed to the kind of staffing changes now prohibited by state law as permissible in CTU negotiations, she delayed settling the strike when she refused to agree to the union’s demand that she throw her support to state legislation to undo the 1995 law that established a mayoral-appointed school board and limited the CTU contracts to salary and benefits. Sarah Karp explains: “(T)o her credit, she did not pursue this legal argument once the strike started and never moved, as her predecessor did, to have the walkout declared illegal. This, she must have realized, was a strike on moral issue and fighting it in a courtroom would not reflect well, especially on a mayor who ran as a progressive. After all, she agreed the school district needed more support staff. But she said putting these promises in the contract would lessen the flexibility the leadership needed.”
Fortunately Chicago’s powerful leaders in Illinois’s state legislature grasped that one of the strike’s primary goals was to undo at least some of the history aimed at disempowering the Chicago Teachers Union. The Sun-Times reports: “On Wednesday, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton signaled support for both measures. That led the union to drop its demand that Lightfoot publicly support the measures.” Later, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker added his support for the legislation demanded by CTU.
Chicago has served as a microcosm where we have all watched the operation of accountability-based, test and punish school reform. Chicago’s history has mirrored the imposition of the same kind of reforms mandated nationally in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Corporate-accountability reformers have embraced evaluation of schools by test scores alone, competition among schools (public school competition and competition from charter schools), punishments for teachers when test scores are low, and school closures for so-called “failing” schools. The experiment has been going on in Chicago for nearly 25 years since mayoral governance was imposed in 1995.
What Chicago teachers showed us during their ten day strike is that corporate reform has not worked. Chicago’s children have been trapped in schools where too many classes have 40 students and not nearly enough support staff. Parents and students have been rallying with their teachers now for nearly two weeks. We have all watched an open display of schools whose funding and resources have become shockingly inadequate.