School’s Out in Chicago, But Labor Struggles Are Just Starting

Kari Lydersen

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union board a school bus Tuesday following the "Give It Back" rally in downtown Chicago.

CHICAGO — As another school year comes to an end this week, few would dispute that the Chicago Public Schools are in their typical state of chaos — underfunded and overcrowded. New mayor Rahm Emanuel, an outspoken advocate of privatizing schools, has named a new school’s CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard, also known for his privatization record.

Needless to say, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which ushered in a progressive leadership slate which has since struggled with internal conflict itself, is not happy.

On Monday, Gov. Pat Quinn signed an education overhaul law that makes it harder for teachers to strike and allows the lengthening of the school day and school year. In the past, the union had flatly opposed such a move. The new law was billed as a collaborative effort involving administrators, community and the union, though union president Karen Lewis was absent from the signing.

A number of dedicated teachers I’ve spoken with say they are not inherently opposed to a longer school day, but they have trouble seeing the point when it is not the number of hours in the classroom, but rather the overcrowding, lack of resources, tyranny of standardized testing and other issues that make it extremely difficult to make quality use of the hours they do have.

The school system is facing a $720 million budget gap, so basic funding — not to mention increasing classroom time — will likely be a challenge.
Tuesday, The Chicago Tribune published an editorial highly critical of the teachers union and of previous school officials and the last school board for supposedly capitulating to them:

The Chicago Board of Education is likely to declare on Wednesday that it can’t pay the city’s teachers the four percent raises they’re supposed to get next year. This should shock no one. The teachers contract signed in 2007 was a complete capitulation by the school board and then-CEO Arne Duncan. They agreed to a five-year contract that didn’t require teachers to spend one more minute in the classroom, but granted them four percent-a-year raises.

The school board gave a sweet deal — a deal it couldn’t afford. The teachers drove a hard bargain. Blame the school board that decided the highest priority was to avoid confrontation.

Meanwhile this week, The Chicago Reader published an excellent piece on a reportedly dedicated and popular teacher who found himself out in the cold as part of the school system’s zeal for transformation.” Ben Joravsky writes:

Consider the case of Anthony Skokna, 56, who was unceremoniously dumped from his job as a history teacher at Marshall High School, just about two years shy of claiming any of his pension. He’s been applying for jobs all over town, but no one will hire him, most likely because he’s too old.

Ironically, Skokna was hired by Chicago Public Schols in 1992, apparently as part of a similar purge of senior teachers, replacing them with younger teachers, then including Skokna. Skokna suffered the indignity of being ordered to help train new teachers to take over his class, and then wasn’t even given the respect of a phone call to tell him he was out. He had to track down the news himself by calling headquarters.

During the interim period while Skokna was kept on the payroll to try to find a new job, he was sent temporarily back to the same high school that had fired him. Apparently, administrators didn’t actually doubt his fitness to teach there, but rather the rate he was paid to do it.

A piece on National Public Radio this week told a similar tale of a prominent, troubled school in Rhode Island. Central Falls High School received more than $1 million in federal funds to effect a transformation” that ultimately led to 26 teachers quitting or being fired. They included history teacher Josh Karten, who figured he got the axe because he was not a true believer.”

Karten’s enthusiasm took a dive after he was put in charge of the restoration” room, a holding pen for the school’s most disruptive students.

But then once I started questioning some of the things they were doing — putting kids in a room just to get them out of the way for the period and then putting them back out. And they basically kept telling me to shut my mouth and just log people when they come in. I never got to teach,” Karten said.

In any battle over teachers union contracts or really anything related to schools, administrators typically invoke the well-being of the students and insinuate that anyone who makes waves is hurting the students or doesn’t have the students’ best interests in mind.

It seems an insulting cop-out when these same public school administrators or property owners who oppose tax reforms or charter school leaders who purge their schools of the weakest students obviously have various priorities other than empowering all kids and helping them learn.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue