The Chicago teachers strike got national attention, much of it presuming that the biggest issues are pay and evaluation.
But the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has stated that the two sides have in fact been very close on pay. And union members have no objection to evaluation. They just want a system not so skewed to standardized, high-stakes testing. These tests aren’t particularly good ways to measure teacher performance and, even worse, have the perverse effect of forcing teachers to teach kids to take tests rather than to love learning.
But the big issues for these schools and for the teachers aren’t talked about because they are officially “off the table.” CTU teachers are most concerned about class size, about adequate facilities, about wrap-around services from social workers to nurses, about well-rounded curricula including art and music and languages, about early childhood education that helps children come to school ready to learn.
Schools not safe
This isn’t fancy stuff. One concern is that classrooms reach temperatures of up to 98 degrees in summer; yet only 29 percent of schools are air-conditioned. Another is about textbooks for the first day of school. Many of Chicago’s elementary and middle schools have no safe place for recess, and few have age-appropriate playground equipment. There are 160 elementary schools without a library; 140 are in the poorer South Side of the city.
Even though a staggering 80 percent of inner-city teen boys are exposed to violence, 675 schools share about 205 social workers. Schools often must choose between art and music, if they are lucky enough to have either.
Too often, Chicago is not providing the basics in public education for its most needy children. The CTU published a report detailing these concerns. But under state law, they can’t negotiate about them unless their employer agrees — and neither Mayor Rahm Emanuel nor school officials will consent to enter into negotiations about these crucial conditions.
Teachers can’t negotiate
When the teachers strike ends and children return to class, teachers will get the blame for the performance of the students. But they can’t negotiate about crushing poverty, broken families and hard streets that impact the hearts, souls and minds of the children they teach. And teachers can’t even negotiate about the quality of the facilities and the educational opportunities provided by the schools where they teach.
It’s not surprising that teachers react when a contractually agreed 4 percent pay raise is revoked or the school day and school year are lengthened without negotiations. They are frustrated at the lack of respect paid to the needs of the children they teach. And they are bound to be frustrated at the lack of respect paid to their own contracts.
No one likes when teachers strike. But teachers are on the front line. In a time of spreading poverty and rising hunger, with harsh exploitation of the poor by landlords and payday lenders, poor children too often come to impoverished schools.
Teachers take the rap for poor student performance without having the power to change what gets in the way of learning. Grading teachers on the basis of a machine-graded test cannot substitute for schools with playgrounds and social workers, classes with manageable numbers, or roofs that don’t leak.
Poverty, inequality, violence, race and investment matter. They must be a part of any long-term solution.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. is president and CEO of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.