The Left's 'Education Justice' -- Chicago Teachers on Strike

The real school bullies take to the streets.

After a final weekend of fruitless, 11th-hour contract negotiations, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) made good on their long-threatened promise and went on strike for the first time in 25 years. "We have failed to reach an agreement that will prevent a labor strike," Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis said. “No CTU members will be inside of our schools Monday. We will walk the picket lines, we will talk to parents, we...will demand a fair contract today, we demand a fair contract now," she said, calling the ordeal an "education justice fight." The strike affects 675 schools and more than 400,000 students in the nation's third-largest public school system.

After the final Sunday session, Chicago school board President David Vitale spoke with reporters, noting that the district had changed its proposal more than 20 times over the course of negotiations and had little left to offer. The district announced that teachers had been offered a 16 percent pay raise over the course of four years, along with other benefit proposals, including paid maternity leave for the first time. “This is about as much as we can do. There is only so much money in the system,” said Vitale. “This is not a small commitment we're handing out at a time when our fiscal situation is really challenged,” he added. Vitale also noted that the latest proposal made by the district would cover four years, at a cost of $400 million.

Lewis countered that the two sides were not far apart on compensation, a major sticking point exacerbated by the school board's unanimous vote last year to rescind the teachers' 4 percent pay hike in the final year of their contract. Yet she also said she would not "prioritize" the remaining issues. Despite that assertion, the three key issues remaining unresolved appear to be health benefits, the teacher evaluation system, and job security. "This is a difficult decision and one we hoped we could've avoided," Lewis said Sunday. "Throughout these negotiations, we've remained hopeful but determined. We must do things differently in this city if we are to provide students the education they so rightfully deserve."

Lewis and Vitale agreed to meet again Monday and resume talks.

With respect to health benefits the issue is simple: teachers want to maintain the status quo, part of which includes "banking" sicks days that cost the system millions of dollars. The teacher evaluation system is a no-go because Lewis claims it would be based too heavily on students' standardized test scores. This ostensibly makes it unfair to teachers, because it fails to properly consider outside factors that affect student performance, such as poverty, violence and homelessness. “Evaluate us on what we do, not on the lives of our children we do not control,” Lewis said Sunday, denouncing the online process responsible for training the evaluators. The union also claims such evaluations could cost 6,000 teachers their jobs. The job security issue stems from the fact that the union wants laid off teachers to be first in line for new jobs. The Chicago Public School system (CPS) wants principals to be able to choose the best teachers.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was furious. After Lewis addressed the press on Sunday night, it was Emanuel's turn. "This [strike] is totally unnecessary, this is avoidable, and our kids do not deserve this," he fumed. "This is a strike of choice." Emanuel contends that only two issues remain unresolved. First, he addressed job security. "It's essential that the local principal who we hold accountable for producing the educational results not be told by the CPS bureaucracy...and not be told by the union leadership who to hire," he said. The second is the aforementioned evaluation system. Emanuel noted that the evaluations would not count in the first year, and the CPS reportedly offered joint implementation of teacher evaluations between itself and the union. "I'm telling you, these were the final two issues," he said, appearing exasperated.

When he took office last year, Emanuel inherited a school district facing a $700 million budget deficit, which led to the cancellation of the aforementioned 4 percent raises. He then asked the union to reopen its contract and accept 2 percent pay raises in exchange for lengthening the school day, something he had made part of his election campaign. After the union refused, Emanuel attempted to bypass it, taking his case to individual teachers until the union challenged his effort before Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. The bad blood that arose as a result reportedly prevented the Mayor from being part of the final negotiations that took place on Sunday.

As a result of the impasse, the system's 26,000 teachers and support staff began manning picket lines early Monday morning. "Rahm says cut back, we say fight back," said picketers outside CPS headquarters. CPS officials implemented their “Children First” contingency plan, keeping 144 schools open between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. in order to provide children with lunch and breakfast in a district where many students receive free meals. They also asked community organizations for help, and a number of churches, libraries and other organizations pitched in to provide activities for some of the children. “The response has been extraordinary, truly extraordinary,” Vitale said Sunday night. “Chicagoans should be proud of how their city has responded to the needs of kids.”

But the likelihood is that many of Chicago's students will take to the streets, a reality for which Police Chief Garry McCarthy was reportedly prepared. "We're emptying out our offices," he said at a Sunday night press conference at the Harold Washington Library. "We're taking officers who are on administrative duties--we're shutting down administrative duties--we're putting those officers on the streets to deal with potential protests at various locations throughout the city." McCarthy's main goals are maintaining security at the Safe Haven Sites throughout the city, dealing with the inevitable picket line protests, and keeping a watchful eye on the thousands of kids likely to hit the streets in a city already wracked by street violence all summer.

How much sympathy the teachers can garner for their cause remains to be seen. The Chicago school district faces a $3 billion shortfall over the next three years, engendered largely by a crushing burden of pensions promised to retiring teachers. And depending on the source, teachers command an average salary -- before benefits are added in -- somewhere between $70,000 and almost $75,000 per year. Furthermore, Chicago teachers received total wage increases ranging from 19-46 percent during their 2007-12 contract, depending on several factors, including length of service.

The political implications of the strike must also be considered. Emanuel is the former White House chief of staff who has just agreed to take a large role in the president's re-election fund-raising efforts. His strained relationship with the teachers union, and by extension organized labor, is likely to anger one of the Obama administration's key fund-raising and get-out-the-vote constituencies. Moreover, the strike comes during a time when local governments across the nation are struggling with large budget gaps, substantial portions of which are due to union contracts that are unsustainable absent major reforms.

Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, illuminates the schism with the Democrat Party's rank and file regarding such issues. This is "a fight between old labor and new Democrats who support education reform, and it has been brewing for a long time in cities across the country," he said.

That disagreement may be part of the reason for the strike. Last year the national advocacy group, Stand for Children, angered the union when it got the Illinois state legislature to pass laws mandating teacher evaluations, and a requirement that CTU have 75 percent of its membership agree to any strike. Stand's research also gave Emanuel ammunition during his mayoral run, where he pointed out that that Chicago's schools have the shortest days in the nation, spearheading his request for the longer school day.

Standing in stark contrast to Chicago's public school closures are the city's charter schools that serve 45,000 students--and remain open. "We think our parents have gotten the message. We think our kids have gotten the message, but we wanted to make sure that we were very clear to every person who lives in Chicago that charter schools will be open tomorrow," said Beth Purvis, the CEO of Chicago International Charter Schools.

Xian Barrett, a Chicago high school law and history teacher, expressed the union position to the Huffington Post on Sunday. "We're all very nervous about the outcome," said the teacher. "But I'm also hopeful that we're finally taking a stand on issues that have more to do with educating children than salary or benefits. It's about who has the right to determine how children are educated in the community."

It certainly does, not only in Chicago, but across the nation. Unions exist for one purpose and one purpose only: to promote and protect the rights of their members. That means, all platitudes aside, that even under the most optimal circumstances imaginable, the concerns of parents and their children come second. Thus, the idea that this strike is "for the children" rings extremely hollow. Nothing highlights this reality better than a CPS fact sheet sent to parents in preparation for the strike. “While academic instruction will not be provided [because it’s prohibited by law during a teachers strike], students will participate in positive activities to keep them engaged," it stated. In other words, no union teachers, no teaching.

Furthermore in resisting the evaluations, CTU president Karen Lewis alluded to a familiar fallback position for teachers unions around the nation: we can't be responsible for lousy parents, or the chaotic lives of children. Who taught the parents, Ms. Lewis? Furthermore, when have teachers collectively bargained, not just for their own well-being, but over issues such as the ability to expel unruly or dangerous students, a decent dress code, or higher education standards -- as opposed to lower ones?

The best Chicago teachers can do is apparently demand that schools be air-conditioned and class sizes be smaller. Whether air-conditioning is a necessity in a school district hundreds of millions of dollars in the red located in a northern city is debatable at best. And while there are some teachers who are unavailable for teaching during a given time frame, 400,000 students divided by 20,000 teachers--six thousand less than the reported number employed--comes to 20 students for every teacher.

"We know a strike is really going to be painful,” union delegate Jay Rehak told The Chicago Tribune. “People will be hurt on both sides. But in the end, it’s like saying, ‘I’ll be bloodied and you’ll be bloodied, but at least you’ll know not to bully me again.’” Parents are being completely inconvenienced, and children are being denied an education--but teachers who make an average of fifteen hundred dollars a week are being "bullied."

That's the real CTU's "children first" worldview.

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