on strike


Today, the Chicago Teachers Union is on strike. A one-day unfair labor practice strike, with the goal to bring attention and awareness to the funding issue. Lots of rallies are going on around the city in coordination with other groups and unions. I spent two hours this morning on a picket line, walking up and down the street in front of our school.

It’s strange. I’m home now, and if this were any other day, I’d be using this time to get ahead on lesson planning, grade some late assignments, etc. Because I never stop working at 3:15 pm. I’m at school from at least 6:45 – 4:30 pm, often coming earlier and staying later. I work on weekends. I worked last Friday while I was at the mechanic waiting for my car’s oil change to be finished, even though it was a furlough day and I certainly wasn’t being paid. (I might have small issues with work/life balance- but teaching takes so much time.) But I’m not working today because I stand with the CTU, and I believe in public education.

I’m striking today, even though I personally feel conflicted about the timing and the issues that we’re striking for and whether this strike will really accomplish anything. (Does Gov. Rauner care? Will this convince him to put through a budget that funds public education?) It was also a confusing mess of communication from the union- first, the union was calling for a strike when CPS said they would pull pension payments on April 1. Then, it switched to a “day of action” after CPS backed down on the pension thing (for now). Which then turned into a “work stoppage”, which was then changed back to a “one day strike”, all within a very short time frame. But the House of Delegates voted for a strike, so here I am, not working.

My thoughts on all of this are also influenced by the recent news about the Supreme Court’s 4-4 split on Friedrichs vs. CTA. The Atlantic article that I linked mentions (at the very end) how states that have gotten rid of agency fee laws have seen declines in union membership, such as in Wisconsin and Michigan. And Illinois does have agency fee laws, which is why I joined the union in the first place- if they are getting my money (and bargaining on my behalf), I might as well have a vote in what they do. I was never very pro-union before I started teaching (I don’t know that I had any real views on unions at all), and I’m not 100% pro-union now. But I see the purpose and power of the union, and in a city that gives the public very little control over public education (the school board is appointed by the mayor, not sure how much control/power the local school councils actually have, they certainly have no real control over the amount of funding the school receives), the teacher’s union is the one very big voice that can advocate for teachers and students. And in a large, diverse but still somewhat segregated city, I can’t imagine what kind of a hot mess the schools would be without the union. When I think about the school systems in Wisconsin and Michigan- well, that’s not a road I want to see Illinois go down.

I was talking about the strike day with some friends over the weekend, and someone (who I don’t know very well and isn’t a teacher) said, somewhat flippantly, “oh, you guys should just get out of CPS”. I think my response kind of took him by surprise, because I was offended to be told to just leave the city. The implication is “it’s not your problem”, and that kind of thinking is what got us here in the first place. I don’t really fault teachers for leaving CPS, because it’s a messy school district to work for. There are a lot of problems in CPS, and there are no easy answers. But to just tell teachers to leave a failing school district is not a solution. There is no easy solution, because fairly funding schools is a hard issue to discuss. “Fair” does not always mean “equal”, but that’s easier to see if you’re the one with fewer resources. If you have plenty of resources, why would you give that up and risk having not enough resources for the sake of others? If one school can get by on the per-student budget given by the district, why can’t they all? (Never mind the fact that the funding deficits are often made up by parent organizations and facility rentals.) I work at a nice school, and I certainly don’t want to give that up. But I recognize the issues and the disparities, and I’m uncomfortable with the disparities. So I stand with the union, because the problems at other schools are my problem, because they’re the problems of my city.

I’d like to have a careful conversation about this, acknowledging both the difficulties and realities of the situation, but it’s hard. I’m often left with more questions than answers with these kinds of issues. So instead of working, I’m finally reading Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System“, which has been sitting on my bookshelf for the past three years. It seems like an appropriate book for today.

the stakes for public education

In Chicago, public schools started the strike authorization vote today. It’s stretched out over 3 days because the union wants to make sure all members actually vote (abstaining counts as a “no” vote).  We would need 75% of the overall membership to vote “yes” to authorize a strike, but even so, a strike couldn’t start until March at the earliest. (And honestly, every day pushes this timeline back a bit, because as far as I’m aware, we still haven’t started the “fact finding” stage of the process.)

Before I got into teaching, I didn’t think much about teacher’s strikes. As a student, I missed the days of constant teacher’s strikes. (The 2012 teacher’s strike was the first Chicago teacher’s strike in 25 years. I went to school in the suburbs but still don’t remember any actual strikes.) But 2012 was also the year that I was student teaching, and I remember being conflicted about whether or not to picket with the teachers at my assigned school. I ended up not going to any of the strike rallies, etc., because honestly I wasn’t comfortable with it. And right now, there’s a part of me that’s still not personally comfortable with the idea of a teacher’s strike, the idea of being out on a picket line. But I believe in public education, and right now it feels like there’s a lot at stake.

Just working in a Chicago Public School has been an eye-opening experience for me. I grew up in the suburbs, went to a very white, very male, small engineering school in Indiana for college, then went to an Ivy for grad school. There’s always been a lot of privilege around me, although I never personally felt that privileged. But you only really know what you live and see, and I only saw the nice, clean, touristy parts of the Chicago. And I can’t say that I see a lot of my city even now, because I work in a very nice school that CPS can point to and say “look at all the great things we do!” and therefore has reason to keep well-resourced. My student population is also not really reflective of the city of Chicago, and we have a very active parents’ group that fundraises and has filled in the gaps when the school district cuts funding. Our “Friends of” organization is one of the top 10 fundraisers in the city. But nevertheless, working in urban education, I see the disparities in education, and it bothers me. And I see the disparities in how public funds are being used, and I wonder why those in charge make conscious decisions to not fund schools.

I have realized, starting with the work I did at UIC for my Master’s in Education and continuing with the issues I see arising in CPS, that teaching is an inherently political act. I do not consider myself a political person, but I realize that education really is something that can equalize and change the status quo. But education can also easily be used to keep the status quo intact. And honestly? I don’t exactly teach my students how to challenge the status quo with chemistry. But I want them to learn how to think critically and realize that they are, in fact, capable human beings. I’m sure those in power know what education can do for the otherwise poor and disenfranchised. Why else would the mayor and members of the Chicago School Board not send their children to CPS schools? They have no incentive to fix the problems in our school system because it doesn’t affect them directly. And they may actually have an incentive to not fix the public school system because that gives their own children an edge up. Given a choice, I think most parents will do “what’s best for their students”, resulting in segregation and inequality (more eloquently put by Jose Vilson).

And so, even though my job personally is not really at risk, even though my school has been fine despite all the budget cuts, etc. (overall; this isn’t to say that we haven’t felt the effects of CPS policies, but I am fully away that because of the school that I’m at, my job has been more secure and the daily issues I deal with less of a problem than many of my colleagues in the CTU), I voted yes to a strike.

Sure, I’d like a raise. I’d like to have a secure pension. (Although in all honesty, with the state of Illinois being the hot financial mess that it is, I’m not counting on a pension at all- but the older teachers who have put in sweat, blood, and tears into this job deserve what was promised. I haven’t heard anything at all about cutting the CPD’s pension fund.) And I’d like to not have to worry about my healthcare. But really, I would like as a city and as a nation for us to wake up to the disparity that exists, in education and everywhere else. To understand that there is so much more holding some people down than others, and that a solid education can counteract some of that. (By no means all of the problems can be solved via education. But it’s a step. And cutting public education is like kicking someone who’s already down.) And I would like the powers that be to realize that education cannot be run like a business (Who is the consumer? What are you selling? Why are you selling what you’re selling? Who is paying for what you’re selling? Who decides whether the product is “good”?) but rather should be a basic human right. And I’d like the city of Chicago to understand that there’s more than raises and pension and healthcare on the table. Keeping class sizes manageable (I say I have classes of 28-30 students, which seems fine to me, and my non-teachers friends are shocked), having classroom aides and support staff for students (nurses, counselors, psychiatrists). Reducing the amount of testing that our students are put through. Making the evaluation process both manageable and meaningful. Things that really are in the best interest of children who are supposed to be learning. Things that many suburban and private schools take for granted (I am sure that the University of Chicago Lab School has all of these things and many more “amenities”).

I don’t want a strike. None of the teachers I have talked to are actually looking forward to a strike. And I admit I dislike some of the antagonistic language put out by the teacher’s union, because I personally do almost everything I can to avoid conflict. But as much as I would like to just stay in my classroom and teach and wish that other people would leave me alone, I believe in public education and I believe we owe more to the students of this city than they’re getting. And honestly, although both the CTU and the school board claim that everything they do is “for the children”, I’m more inclined to believe that of the CTU. So I hope that we don’t get to the point of an actual walkout, I hope that the school board and the teacher’s union can actually come to an agreement before it gets to that point, I hope that the state of Illinois can find a reasonable solution to the financial mess that we are in (which is not the fault of the teachers, yet they continually ask us to bear the financial brunt of the problem). But if it comes down to it, I vote yes to public education and all that it stands for.