The Chicago Teachers Strike and the Privatization of a Generation

Chicago Teachers Union delegates voted overwhelmingly this week to approve a new contract, just weeks after the end of a 7 day long strike they launched, which had effectively shut down all of Chicago’s public schools.

The decision comes just weeks after the latest round of negotiations between Chicago Public Schools and the CTU 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 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.

But with the strike over, and the CTU finally settling on a new contract, those of us concerned with the future of the labor movement need to seriously begin looking at the changes this particular strike embodied – not only for schools, but for the economy itself.

The contract:

The negotiations largely 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 recommended a new three-year contract to the membership, which includes a number of concessions for both the city and the union.

The contract 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).

Additionally, 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 had 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  Ms. Karoluk, an education worker close to the Chicago teachers’ strike, “CTU is not looking for a perfect contract. They just want a fair one.”

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

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 during the negotiations, 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:

The debate surrounding charter schools in Chicago – while not explicit in the teachers’ press releases – have nonetheless been an implicit and ongoing subject of contention during the strike.

The appeal of charters isn’t particularly difficult to understand. As their budgets have shrunk during the recent economic crisis, local governments across the country have found the idea increasingly attractive.

Between 2000 and 2010, in fact, the number of students enrolled in charter schools across the country has risen from nearly .5 million to over 1.5 million, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Because charter schools pay lower average salaries to their teachers, supplement public funding with increased private donations, and introduce 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 in recent years 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 – from their perspective.