While three years have passed since the last teacher’s strike in Chicago, many of the same issues remain. Some schools still do not have essential staff like a librarian or nurse, counselors are overworked, teachers have little autonomy in the classroom and the pressures from administrators to do even more is pushing many out of the profession or into other districts. Those are just a few of the issues the Chicago Teachers Union highlighted during a press conference earlier this week where they announced union members voted overwhelmingly to go on strike.
Chicago Public Schools teachers are currently working without a contract. Some of their demands include an increase in pay, no more layoffs, limit or decrease the number of charter schools and stop closing neighborhood schools, which they say hurts entire Black communities. A total of 88 percent of all teachers – or 96 percent of those who voted – agreed to authorize the strike, according to the union. A law in Illinois requires at least 75 percent of union members vote yes.
“Chicago Teachers Union members do not want to strike, but we do demand that you listen to us,” said union Vice President Jesse Sharkey. “Do not cut our schools; do not lay off educators or balance the budget on our backs. Mayor Emanuel and Forrest Claypool need to listen to what teachers and educators are trying to tell you: do not cut the schools anymore, do not make the layoffs that you have threatened; instead, respect educators and give us the tools we need to do our jobs.”
If the teachers do walk off the job, it is not expected to happen until sometime this spring. But if it does, CTU President Karen Lewis is advising teachers to start saving now.
“We might have to go light on the Christmas shopping this year,” Lewis joked. “In all seriousness though, we are telling our members to start planning now…this could be a long strike this time. We are advising educators to save up to 25 percent of their paycheck.”
The last strike in 2012 lasted for seven days. Lewis anticipates this one would be longer. The 2012 strike was the first one in 25 years. But with the city’s finances in dire conditions, according to city and school officials, they are appealing for teachers to help them lobby Springfield legislators to pass a budget that is holding up CPS finances.
“We’re asking the teachers to join us in challenging Springfield to fund our schools appropriately,” Claypool said. “A strike is not what we need right now.”
The union laid out three areas of concern they say need to be addressed to avert a strike:
1. Improve the teaching and learning conditions by reducing standardized testing, eliminate compliance paperwork, and restore professional respect and autonomy to teachers on matters like grades.
2. Staff schools at an adequate level with reasonable class sizes, instruction in art, music, science and technology, a library with a librarian and a nurse.
3. Address the social ills that affect quality education in large swaths of our city, like racism, homelessness, unemployment and a broken immigration policy.
“We must address the undeniable fact that these problems spill over into our schools and devastate the lives of our children,” Sharkey said. “We have modest demands to address these problems—allow our counselors to counsel, approve restorative justice programs in targeted schools, help with translation and bilingual services.”
Claypool added the money that the union wants currently does not exist. Mayor Emanuel continues to elude questions as to why some schools do not have basic things like a nurse or librarian. Those are two areas that have parents livid with the mayor.
“This mayor and other city leaders would never allow their children to attend a school that doesn’t have a school nurse or a closed school library. A library in the school is one of the main features of the place,” said Roxanne Dillard. “It’s disrespectful to the students, the teachers and the citizens and Chicago’s school system is an embarrassment to the whole world.”
The teachers union is also concerned about the security of their members. Verbal and physical attacks on teachers continue to be a problem, according to Sharkey. Union leaders believe much of this comes from teachers not having control over their classrooms and administrators either doing nothing or going too far with discipline action against students.
“One of the things we are really fighting for this time around will be restorative justice programs in our schools,” Lewis said. “When these programs were implemented in the past on a pilot basis we found much success. The bottom line is troubled children deserve to be educated too and by expelling kids or giving them lengthy suspensions, it is not solving the problem. Then when you factor in that those who are expelled or suspended are disproportionately African American, you can see how this problem affects the entire community.”
While it will not be a part of the official negotiations, the union is also concerned about the decline in African American teachers, especially Black males. Critics of both the union and CPS say more needs to be done to recruit, mentor and retain young African American teachers.
“Our children need to see teachers who look like them and who have dealt with many of the same issues they are currently facing in their community when they were a kid,” said Phillip Jackson of the Black Star Project. “The decline of the Black teacher in public schools across the country is at a crisis level.”