Chicago Teachers' Strike: A Plea to Agreeby Sarah Dyer
Thursday was Day 4 of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike. Two of my kids started in the public school system here in Chicago last Tuesday.
My pre-schooler has 20 kids in her class and took it all in stride having watched her big brother run through the program last year. It was a rough go for him though; feeling a little lost among the 31 other kindergartners in his class.
We are fortunate to live in a good area of Chicago. While the walk to school is laughably urban, we pass by two diners, a run-down Church of Scientology storefront, a Jimmy Johns, countless carpet stores, and an Army Navy surplus store; the school itself is one of the best public schools in the city.
My husband and I both went to public school (he in Texas and me in Toronto) so we felt like public school was the route we wanted to go.
On Monday, the first day of the strike, I was very pro-teachers union. Thinking yes, it really would be nice for Luke not to have 31 other kids in his class. By end of day Tuesday, I was looking at the photos of the striking teachers down in Grant Park and couldn’t help but wonder if they’d still be striking if the weather weren’t so nice.
Two full days alone with my kids and it had turned me slightly sour (and I’m one of the lucky ones that didn’t have to find alternative care for my kids). Truth be told, the media is making it very difficult to figure out who is negotiating for what.
If you’re not familiar with Chicago and what is going on, here is a little synopsis.
Our mayor is Rahm Emanuel. Rahm left DC as the White House Chief of Staff for Obama to run for mayor here. His younger brother, Ari, is an agent in Hollywood, often thought to be the person that the character Ari Gold from Entourage is based on. Rahm, like his brother, is often referred to as a bully. He was responsible for lengthening the school day by 90 minutes this year to bring it up to par with the rest of the country (I consider this positive).
According to media reports, there are two points of contention on the Chicago Public School (CPS) side that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) won’t agree to. (1) Teacher evaluations and (2) a process for deciding which laid-off teachers can be rehired.
CPS/Rahm want teachers to be evaluated based several categories; they would be observed in the classroom by their administrators, and assessed by their students. They would then be assessed based on their students’ performance on standardized tests. This is unacceptable to the CTU because many kids perform poorly on standardized tests, come to school hungry, and live in poor crime-ridden neighborhoods according to a Reuters article. CPS/Rahm also wants administrators to have the decision making power to interview and hire non-union candidates. CTU says no, you should hire union teachers that have been laid off.
Okay, so far I am on the side of the bully mayor here. While standardized tests may truly not be a fair reflection of a teacher’s performance there should be some measure of administrative input on which teachers are performing above par and which ones aren’t.
So, what are the issues according to the Teachers Union? Well, here is where it becomes a bit more muddled. Karen Lewis, the leader of the teachers union, made a statement last night that they had resolved 6 of the 50 open items on the CTUs list of contentions. I have yet to see a list of the 50 items, so I don’t know what they all are. Last week, I received a handout from one of the teachers at our school garnering support for the union. The handout stated items that they were set to strike for:
- With the increase in school day hours, teachers were going to hold the same hours as the students (8am-3pm). Therefore, there would be no before and after school supervision of the playground.
- The report card hand out time was being shortened to half a day so there would be no time to meet with parents to talk about report cards.
- Two previously observed holidays (Columbus Day and Pulaski Day) are now regular school days, this leaves teachers no extra days to meet as a collective.
- Class size
Ok, so really, I can solve some of these problems. However, the CTU website lists other issues that are outstanding:
- CTU wants to maintain existing health benefits
- Job security (which I presume refers to the teacher evaluation process)
- They want an increase in teacher training or for it to remain the same
- Reasonable timeline for installation of air conditioning/Facilities issues
- Additional Social Workers and School nurses: there are only 350 social workers for a student population of 400,000
- Art, language, and physical education for all schools
- Class size
- Fair compensation
I can see the need for reform on a number of these issues and support the union’s goal of trying to get ALL public schools up to par.
According to Illinois law, a union can only strike over pay and benefits. So, while this strike may not actually be about compensation, it is being used as leverage to gain other concessions. Previously, CTU had claimed Chicago teachers are among the lowest paid profession in the city. That may be an accurate fact, I don’t know. However, the average Chicago teacher’s salary is $70,000 which is higher than the national average for teachers. CPS/Rahm has since offered a 16% raise over 4 years, and CTU has issued statements saying they are very close on compensation. Again, likely a bargaining tool instead of a real issue.
In my mind, teaching is one of the toughest jobs out there. You couldn’t pay me enough to try and teach 31 of my sons friends to read and write. I have a hard enough time trying to get him to write a thank you note. I can’t even fathom trying to teach kids that fear violence every time they leave their front door, kids that worry about where their next meal is going to come from.
So, this is where my mind has settled. Chicago, for all its beautiful parks, stunning waterfront and skyline has a very real crime issue. A lot of these teachers work in those tough neighborhoods and are fighting for better facilities, training, and care for their students.
So Mr. Mayor, while the nation is watching, consider for a second why the Chicago Public School system wasn’t good enough for your kids. Make the changes to better all schools, not just the ones with parents who can afford to chip in for a nice playground. And teachers, its ok to have performance evaluations. We all do! It’s a part of being employed, and it really makes the system better as a whole.
So, everyone needs to hurry up and come to an agreement before I am forced to donate my kids to the Lincoln Park Zoo!