When It Comes to the Chicago Strike, Here’s Why I’m Sticking with the Union

As the Chicago Teachers Union strike moves through Day 8, district and union leadership are haggling over the dollars needed to reach an agreement. This won’t be easy and it may take a while. Some parents are getting frustrated. While I get that this is hard and puts undue burdens on students, I’m not one of the frustrated parents. Personally speaking, I continue to support the union.

Here’s why. As most folks who know me know, I’m an old-school lefty. When you say, “Class war,” I say, “Bring it!” I support labor’s right to strike, including in public sector unions. Nationally, we’ve seen 40 years of policies designed to hamstring labor and put more wealth in wealthy people–and corporations’–pockets. All this has produced skyrocketing income inequality. That won’t be undone by asking pretty please.

Similar kinds of economic and tax policy play out at the local and state levels. When these combine with segregated housing and gerrymandered school district borders, they often choke off money for schools. My education reform friends at Ed Build would probably best understand what this strike is about. They wrote the report showing the $23 billion funding gap between districts with predominantly white student enrollment and districts where nonwhite students predominated.

In 2017, Illinois finally took action to begin to redress its shameful inequities in education funding. Chicago, which had been on the brink of financial collapse, now has a bit more money to spend and is on more stable financial footing. If, God willing, the legislature continues to fund the new formula, we could see a real shift from the state toward equity and adequate resources.

But the city has not yet followed suit. This strike is about forcing the city to change course. It’s about how Chicago chooses to spend its tax dollars, and who gets to decide how they are spent. Chicago schools are shortchanged in part because city leaders are willing to abuse tax-increment financing districts. These tax incentives, meant to encourage development in areas that need investment, divert property taxes away from schools for 23 years and put them in developers’ pockets.

The Time to Make Change Is Now

People say, “Give Lightfoot a chance! She just took office.” But the Chicago Teachers Union doesn’t have time to give her a chance. Their contract is up now. Contract negotiations with the city are one of the rare moments when ordinary Chicagoans can exert leverage on city government. Yes, elections are the other big pathway, and they happened recently.

Is the mayor who beat the machine ready to dismantle its financial impact on schools?

However, as Frederick Douglass told us, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Why would any mayor say, “Sure, after 25 years of us being able to pack kids in classrooms and spend money elsewhere, we’ll be happy to let you tell us how to spend our money?” That’s just not happening. This situation will not change without a fight.

Number one on the union’s list of outstanding demands is enforceable class size. In 1995, the union lost the right to bargain over class size when a new law gave Chicago’s mayor more direct control over the school system. Note to Chicagoans: that didn’t create a board appointed by the mayor. We’ve always had that. But it removed some community influence on mayoral decision making and put the appointments directly in mayoral hands.

For the last 25 years, the Chicago Teachers Union’s goal has been to restore those rights. It is currently the only district in the state that can’t wrangle with management over how many kids will be in the classroom.

Will Kids See a Difference When This Is Over?

As a CPS parent and longtime district observer, I see the results of the status quo. I’m lucky–my daughter has never been in a class larger than 31. But I have friends now whose first-grader shares a classroom with 35 other children. I hear about classes of 40 children split between two different grades. I used to be a teacher, and I cannot imagine trying to teach two different grade levels in one room filled with 40 kids.

Education reformers are not wrong to argue that a few more kids here or there does not affect great teachers. The research backs them up. But that research is not talking about overcrowding, Chicago-style.

It’s time for something to be done. And doing something is expensive.

We can have arguments about whether the city can or can’t afford the proposals the union is making about class size and staffing. We can certainly argue about whether CTU leadership has a realistic bottom line. On Sunday, Chalkbeat Chicago noted that CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates may be holding out to win it all.  That’s naive at best, foolish at worst–especially when CPS could stop paying members’ health insurance premiums this Friday.

At the same time, we can’t reflexively dismiss teacher unions as greedy, political or purely self-interested when they push to fix historically neglected problems. Call me a utopian socialist, but when an agreement is reached, I want my kid to walk back into her school and see something concretely different. Whether it’s a nurse when she has a tummy ache, a social worker she can talk to, or an aide in a class that is too large, I want to know those things are coming, and will stay.

That’s why, come what may, I’ll spend time at the picket lines every day with my CPS 5th-grader, cheering for her teachers until an agreement is reached.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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