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The Chicago Teachers Strike and the Privatization of a Generation

category north america / mexico | economy | news report author Wednesday September 26, 2012 07:42author by John Jacobsen Report this post to the editors

John Jacobsen reports on developements in the contract negotiations between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union in the context of public school closings and the rise of charter schools. [Italiano]

The Chicago Teachers Strike and the Privatization of a Generation

CTU Delegates voted this week to end the 7 day long strike which had effectively shut down all of Chicago’s public schools.

The decision comes after the latest round of negotiations between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union succeeded in reaching a deal that negotiators felt they could recommend to the union’s embattled teachers.

The strike originally began on September 10, after the CTU and the city failed to reach an agreement during their most recent rounds of contract negotiations. Following the breakdown in the discussions, nearly twenty-six thousand teachers and support staff walked off their jobs for the first time in 25 years .

Teachers immediately hit the streets following the strike vote, followed in suit by throngs of supportive students and parents. Marches were held across Chicago, shutting down traffic in the city centers, and pickets were established at over 675 schools, as well as at the Board of Education.

The strike has highlighted both the rocky relationship of the labor movement with the Democratic Party, with Mayor Rahm Emmanuel – a high-end fundraiser for President Barack Obama, as well as his former Chief of Staff – going so far as to seek an injunction on the teachers union during the strike, as well as the need for the Teachers Union to take a stronger course of action in opposing the coming school privatizations we call “charter schools”.

The contract

The negotiations to date have revolved around several contentious issues – pay and benefit issues, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s push for a longer school day and new teacher evaluations (which originally would have tied teachers pay to their students’ test scores), issues involving the rehiring of laid off teachers, as well as issues of pensions.

Negotiators have recommended a new three-year contract to the membership, which, pending approval by referendum, includes a number of concessions for both the city and the union.

“I personally believe that the CTU will agree to the tentative contract eventually,” says Agnieszka Karoluk, an education worker close to the Chicago Teachers Union, although “many CTU members do not trust CPS due to their history of slipping in language and caveats to original promises.”

The contract as it stands includes a 4 year agreement to raise teachers’ pay by 17.6% over the next four years, just over half of the original 30% increase the union originally sought, but still far better than CPS’s original offer of 2%.

Teachers’ workloads will also increase with the school day and year, adding more than two years of instruction over the course of a new students career, Mayor Emanuel boasted, even though teachers in Chicago already work an average of 10 hours a day at school with an additional 2 hours at home (or roughly 800 hours more per year than their current contracts require).

Reports also indicate that the union was able to fight off Mayor Emmanuel’s push for a teacher evaluation system which would have linked teachers pay directly to student test scores.

The controversial system has been criticized by many in the education system for punishing teachers for factors largely outside of their control, especially in low-income neighborhoods, where a student’s performance can and often is impacted negatively by problems at home, in access to transportation or research tools, and a myriad of other issues.

“Either way,” concludes Karoluk, “CTU is not looking for a perfect contract. They just want a fair one.”

Many workers, however, remain skeptical of the city’s promises, notes Ms. Karoluk.

Chicago teachers were infuriated, for instance, when last year, the newly appointed school board voted to cancel contractually mandated pay raises for teachers. It surfaced later that the public schools had secretly diverted millions of dollars from teacher’s salaries and pensions in order to claim they were too broke to afford the pay raises.

Some in the union, however, were equally concerned with what was not in the contract.

“In addition to details to be worked out in the next 48 hours,” noted Ms. Karoluk in an article published on Libcom. ”CTU members criticized the lack of language about school closings in the contract. This was evidently the number one concern of both the union delegate and all the CTU staff and teachers who were present at the meeting this morning at Jordan.”

“CPS already has an agreement with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to open 60+ charter schools in Chicago, causing the closing of neighborhood schools in the process.”

The new schools

There have been numerous school reforms proposed over the preceding decades which have challenged the old public school form.

Voucher systems have been proposed to allow families now enrolled in public schools to instead send their children to private primary and secondary schools; school choice and outcome based education have been prominent themes in school reform debates, as have basic questions of class size and drop out rates.

Charter schools, however, have been an implicit and ongoing subject of contention during the latest teachers strike in Chicago.

As their budgets have shrunk, local governments across the country have found the idea of charter schools increasingly attractive.

Because charter schools pay lower average salaries to their teachers, supplement public funding with increased private donations, and have introduced private management firms into the school structure to help keep costs down, many charter schools have proved to be significantly less costly than traditional public schools. In fact, while the schools themselves are still considered public, nearly 16% of charter schools are managed by for profit Education Management Organizations.

The rise in charter schools can also be accounted for by the amount of Federal money being invested in them. As of 2002, nearly 2/3 of charter schools had received federal money in their start-up phase; as of 2010, over $130 million had been awarded to various charters around the country by the Charter Schools Program alone, only one of several government programs which now provides support and assistance to charter schools.

Of note was also assistance provided by FEMA, which by June of 2006, was reimbursing charter schools for “costs related to repair, restoration, or replacement of disaster-damaged facilities,” helping the school district effectively restructure the whole of the city’s education system. (As of today, New Orleans remains the only city in the United States where a majority of its public school students attend charter schools).

These shifts towards charter schools, we must remember, have come from both democrats and republicans alike. And for good reason.

The new economy

The state recognize that we no longer live in a society in which strong, publicly managed programs can be the solution to many of our the economies needs.

During the reign of Keynesian policies – the era of the GI bill and the public works programs – it was not only possible to enact policies which provided a strong social safety net for the population, but structurally necessary. Possible because capitalists had little recourse or opportunity to move their production overseas (government sanctions like the Bretton Woods act imposed restrictions on overseas investment, and following the second world war, the infrastructure of most other industrial countries had been bombed out), and necessary because the United States was still reeling from the depression, with millions of its citizens returning home who needed jobs.

It goes without saying, of course, that we no longer live in that society. We live in a time when it is not only possible to offshore production and service work, but often more profitable; a society in which capital is less and less bound up by nation states (which, of course, makes it possible to impose high tax rates on its largest earners), and more and more needs to circulate globally in order to remain competitive.

As Peter Brogan writes in his piece, What’s behind the attack on teachers and public education?,

“an arena of economic investment and capital accumulation the global market for educational services is tremendous! Two and a half trillion dollars globally as of last year, and in the U.S. it’s close to $600 billion that [investors are] looking to get their hands on. This is why what have been called “venture philanthropists”, most prominently the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation and the Walton Foundation have been the chief financial backers of the “school choice,” so-called “education reform” movement. Education needs to be recognized as a vital arena for economic development and capitalist accumulation.”

Privitisation has thus become the great policy goal behind our economies ability to remain competitive within a global market place, as well as meeting the growing needs of industry in training the new workforce (without the budgets which previously were able to support public schooling as we knew it).

This shift is having a profound effect on the ways in which education is structured domestically – not only how we fund education, but in how the classroom itself is now being reorganized.

“[Workplace] practices have significantly altered in the last few decades,” notes Amanda Credaro, in her 2006 paper Innovation and Change in Education.

Evoking images of the new workforce – increasingly employed in providing services and forced to change jobs frequently – she continues, “No longer is the accumulation of skills and knowledge the primary prerequisite for employment, but an ability to be able to adapt to new situations, to continue to learn independently, and to work cooperatively have become imperative.”

The strike, in context

In good business union fashion, there was a disconnect during this strike between what may be considered more “political demands” and purely “economic” ones.

While individual members of the CTU have rightly come out against the charter school system, the union still chooses to frame its opposition in terms of ”shifting funding away from public schools;” in other words, to couch the debate in terms of its economic impacts on public schools.

Simply stated, the knee jerk reaction of defending our traditional public institutions – be they public schools or even the unions themselves – is not realistic.

Unless teachers, parents and students can begin re-imagining what schooling should look like in this the new economy; unless they can begin organizing around a new vision for education – one which neither looks to the past of a dreary assembly line public school or to the hyper alienated and profit driven system of the charter school – they will be swept aside by the steady march of capitalism.

In a time when not just unions, but the very institution of public school as we have known it is undergoing enormous attacks and changes, it would bolster the teacher’s defenses to move beyond simply fighting over their pay, class sizes and their job security – and to offer a deeper critique and more far-reaching proposal for reforms to the education system.

There is a frenzy in this country over the state of our public schools, and for the union to focus this strike purely around economic issues – caring rhetoric surrounding children aside – was naive and short-sighted, as it cedes liberals a monopoly on school reform, allowing a Seattle Times editorialist to claim, without challenge, “reasonable reforms, such as stronger teacher evaluations and innovation through public charter schools, transcend partisan politics;” Or for CNN contributor Ruben Navarrette Jr. to claim that teachers unions see their role as protectors of teachers “from public demands for greater accountability, higher standards and a better education for our children,” and in the next breath threaten: ”If the teachers aren’t back in their classrooms on Monday, the mayor needs to decertify the union, fire the teachers and hire replacements.”

This limitation – the union’s inability to move beyond traditional “bread and butter” issues – is directly related to the CTU’s legal status and structure. If unions continue to see themselves as they are legally defined – more or less as legal bargaining agents tasked only with bickering over wages and benefits – they will remain unable to effectively combat the coming changes to the schools.

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