Chicago Schools Are Under Attack! What Do We Do? STAND UP, FIGHT BACK!
Many politically active teachers around the country look to the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) as the leading example of what teacher’s unions and public sector unions generally should be: strident in rhetoric and militant in action, willing to take the powers that be head on through strikes and demonstrations. While the courage and steadfastness of the CTU does indeed merit respect and admiration, we must also recognize that the incompetence, corruption and neglect of local and state officials has made militant action necessary on the streets of Chicago.
Local Issues in Chicago
One June 11th, thousands of Chicago teachers were marching in the streets and declaring “This Means War” to the city and state’s political establishment. At issue is a $1.1 billion budget gap for the new fiscal year beginning July 1st, leaving doubts as to whether the money owed the city teacher’s pension fund ($634 million) will be deposited on time. The Chicago Teacher’s Union is being asked by the district to accept a 7% pay cut and increased health insurance premiums to close the fiscal gap, which the union’s representatives have justifiably called “insulting.”
There is no love lost between the Chicago Teacher’s Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was re-elected in a runoff with 56% of the vote in April, needing $26 million to accomplish that. Emanuel is widely criticized for being “Mayor 1%” and for his heavy-handed and brusque manner. He is still seething over the 2012 teacher’s strike, the first in Chicago in 25 years, and the teacher’s union harshly criticized his administration for school closings in 2013. Adding more friction to the current contract negotiation is the resignation of Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Chicago Schools CEO (why a school system needs a person with the title CEO is beyond me,) who allegedly gave a $20.5 million no bid contract to a former employer. There is therefore reason to suspect that mismanagement and corruption are at the root of the city’s financial crunch rather than a real inability to fund teacher salaries and pensions at their present level (or increase them for that matter.) The Chicago Teacher’s Union is calling for raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations to close the gap, and for ending the high stakes testing that is turning classrooms nationwide into test prep factories this time of year.
Statewide Issues in Illinois
Adding to the problem is the fact that Illinois’ governor, Bruce Rauner, is so right wing that his budget even calls for cutting maintenance on the tomb of a man who would surely be ashamed to be a Republican today, Abraham Lincoln. Rauner has declared that Chicago Public Schools should simply declare bankruptcy and restructure, a move which will surely bring the kind of shifting of control away from the voting public that we’ve seen in Newark or New Orleans. This agenda has nothing to do with educating the 400,000 children who attend Chicago public schools and everything to do with slashing budgets and cutting pay in the kind of race to the bottom that Republican governors nationwide are forcing on their residents.
National Issues on display in Chicago
The story of the Chicago teachers’ struggle has been under reported in the national media, probably because many of the powers that be who own the mainstream press would like to perpetuate the lie that teachers are paid well, given summers off and protected in a cushy job because they are unionized. We must never forget that the conditions under which teachers work are the conditions in which students learn. Teachers (and all workers) across the nation must be paid adequately, respected rather than blamed for all of society’s problems by politicians in the media and given autonomy to do what is best for the children they serve. The battle against austerity measures that harm children, workers and our society’s most vulnerable is part of the story in Chicago. The national struggle against Common Core and high stakes testing is also there. We must share this story and add our voices to it, never forgetting that as Martin Luther King Jr. once said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
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