Chicago teachers – and their students – returned to their classrooms today after the union’s 800-member House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly yesterday to suspend their seven-day strike. The local contract fight drew national attention to the clash between two different visions of school reform.
Within the next two weeks, roughly 29,000 teachers and staff will vote on their new contract. Reactions from union delegates who talked with members walking the picket lines – and who did not vote on whether to recommend adoption of the contract – indicate that teachers are likely to approve the deal.
Already the debate is starting over who won and what lessons should be learned.
Here are some initial thoughts:
1. Teachers, students, parents and the public are the immediate winners – not because the contract was a sweeping victory, or the fundamental problems of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) were solved, but because the contract limits the encroachment of corporate-style school reform. Such reform adopts a punitive attitude towards teachers, rather than a collaborative approach to encourage continual improvement while weeding out the hopelessly incompetent. The reform agenda also relies heavily on high-stakes, standardized tests that distort education and have proven an inaccurate and unreliable measure of teacher performance.
In the public-relations battle over who was helping “the kids,” the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) held its own by emphasizing how it successfully bargained for a commitment to hire 600 new teachers in art, music and other “enrichment” courses. CTU also extracted promises from CPS to hire more counselors, supply textbooks by the first day of school and include a parent representative on a class-size review committee.
2. Defenders of corporate reforms – such as the Chicago Tribune editorial page–see the contract as their victory: Teachers will be evaluated partly on student test scores and the school year will be longer (but not as long as mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted). But CTU had to make some of its concessions to comply with state law, and some of those state changes came in response to conditions the Obama administration placed on federal aid.
3. The union came away stronger. Members were inspired by the strike, the rallies and the strong public support. That support came especially from low-income African-American and Latino parents, whom anti-union writers and public spokespeople continued to describe as hostile to teachers (despite two polls to the contrary). Ultimately, the strike was a success and will serve as a model for the future because the new, more radical CTU leadership educated and organized members far in advance; organized parental allies and public support; and kept faith in internal union democracy, open debate and ultimate deference to the will of rank-and-file members.
It’s little surprise that on the day the strike ended, top Emanuel advisor, charter school advocate and “wealthy venture capitalist” (as the Tribune described him) Bruce Rauner told a right-wing policy conference, “The critical issue is to separate the union from the teachers.” That will be harder now, but the Tribune editorialists had another solution: accelerate the closing of public schools and opening of publicly funded but private charter schools and prohibit teachers from striking. In any case, Rauner sees the strike as the start of “a multi-year revolution.” His reactionary “revolution” imposed from above, however, now faces a revolution from below.
As union delegates left the meeting yesterday, one after another stressed, “We’re not done,” “It’s not the end,” or, as middle school teacher Mike Murphy put it, “The contract is a first step in a long struggle for justice.”
The bigger battles ahead include fights over CPS’s plan to close 80 to 200 schools and open more charters, fair funding for the schools, proper implementation of the contract and much more. Meanwhile, the national American Federation of Teachers (with which CTU is affiliated) has already had some success with a parallel, ongoing effort to organize more charter school teachers.
But these local Chicago fights have less chance of succeeding if Democratic politicians throughout much of the country – starting with the administration – continue to embrace corporate school reform and reject a more collaborative approach that starts – as CTU president Karen Lewis said Tuesday – by taking into account the views of those who do the work.
Democrats should reject the corporate reforms not just because they ape Republican policies or because they’re anti-union or because they give up on government – all good enough reasons. They should also do so because research shows that most of the corporate nostrums don’t work (including evaluating teachers based on student test scores) and that charters are no panacea (with more performing worse than comparable public schools than the small share performing better).
Of course, education by itself will not significantly reduce inequality and poverty, both of which make teaching more difficult, especially in big city schools like Chicago, where more than four-fifths of students qualify for free lunches on the basis of low family income. Ultimately, reforming public education must be part of – not a substitute for – a broader movement for economic justice.
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.