Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been saying this a lot: The kids of Chicago deserve better. Yes, they do, Mayor! They deserve a mayor who doesn't use them as political props, who doesn't step on them on his way to higher office, who doesn't demonize hard-working teachers and public school support staff. Talk about greedy!
It's not about the money, the teachers say. To a person, teachers interviewed say it's about quality schools and decent working and learning conditions.
In short, the strike is about the kids and the future of public education.
Both sides in Chicago agree there has been much progress and agreement on the pay. It's class size, methods of teacher evaluations and school stability.
These issues directly affect students, parents and the wider community. Class size is increasing exponentially to 40 students or more, with a longer day that is under-funded and poorly thought out. Talk about warehousing!
The mayor is insisting that standardized test scores be the exclusive measurement for evaluating teachers. Talk about teaching to the test and taking any creativity out of education! Standardized tests are not the be-all and end-all of learning. There is no evidence that says they are. In fact, there is strong evidence to the contrary.
Some kids are good test takers and some kids aren't. Some kids have special needs and won't make the standardized grade. There are kids who are English learners. There are kids who come to school hungry, who have witnessed violence, who sleep in a shelter, who worry about their parents being deported. These issues affect student learning. Instead of putting money and policies to address these problems, teachers become the scapegoats and budgets get slashed.
Teacher hiring and placement affect school stability and effectiveness. Emanuel's proposals are based on a business model: get rid of higher paid, more experienced teachers and replace them with newer, less experienced teachers - who conveniently make less money. These newer teachers come into the system totally unsupported, under pressure from principals and the Board to raise test scores. They get burnt out or decide to find better conditions elsewhere and leave after just a few years. If a school doesn't "succeed" in sufficiently raising its test scores, it gets closed down. The entire staff is fired and the facility is turned over to a charter school business. Where's the stability for the kids in that?
This is the corporate agenda for public education. The Republicans fully embrace it - and even go farther with their extremism and support for vouchers. The corporate wing of the Democratic Party, which Emanuel represents, supports it too.
It's telling that the Republican ticket - Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan - lost no time in coming out in full support of Emanuel. The president, on the other hand, declined to take sides.
While there are many features of the corporate model in the Obama education policy, there is also a willingness to have teachers and their unions at the table with a say in the reforms.
Emanuel chose to take on the teachers and force a corporate model for education down the throats of Chicagoans. That was his choice. He also directed $5 million in taxpayer money to underwrite the construction of a new Hyatt hotel in Chicago's southside Hyde Park neighborhood while public schools in the same neighborhood lost $3.2 million in funding. By the way, Hyatt is owned by the Pritzker family and last year Emanuel appointed his buddy Penny Pritzker to the unelected Chicago Board of Education.
It's not lost on the nation that a Democratic mayor and former chief of staff for President Barack Obama has forced the teachers union to walk off their jobs. Chicago - the City of Big Shoulders - is a well-known union town and solidly Democratic. Organized labor is a key part of the support base for Democrats. Emanuel's anti-public education campaign is diverting attention from a critical national election just weeks away.
The teachers and their supporters have a different vision for the schools. The union calls for caps on class size, restoring arts, music, sports and science and an increase in school counselors, social workers and nurses, as a start.
Parents and students know teachers care and work hard. That's why there is so much support for the teachers among them and the broader community. The labor movement too supports the teachers. But there are some who fall for the rightwing lies of teachers being "greedy" and already well paid. It's critical to get the truth out about why this strike is happening and what's at stake.
CTU President Karen Lewis said the union did not want to strike and wants to resolve this quickly. The children of Chicago deserve better. They deserve a mayor who puts kids first.
Photo: (PW/John Bachtell)