Chicago Teachers Union Strike: A Proxy for Deep Teacher-Parent Dissatisfaction With Current Education Policy

Chicago Teachers Union Strike: A Proxy for Deep Teacher-Parent Dissatisfaction With Current Education Policy

This is a must-read from The Nation on why the Chicago teacher’s strike is much more than a local issue. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel share roots in the city that was Obama’s training ground as a politician, and so they’re deserved targets as well as proxies for all that many teachers and parents find wrong with the White House’s federal education policies.

And here, Diane Ravitch in The New York Review of Books describes what’s at stake in rejecting corporate education from the heart of “ed reform” in the nation’s third largest school district:

The strike has national significance because it concerns policies endorsed by the current administration; it also raises issues found all over the country. Not only in Chicago but in other cities, teachers insist that their students need smaller classes and a balanced curriculum. [Privatizers] want more privately-managed charter schools, even though they typically get the same results as public schools. Charter schools are a favorite of the right because almost 90 percent of them are non-union. Teachers want job protection so that they will not be fired for capricious reasons and have academic freedom to teach controversial issues and books. [Privatizers] want to strip teachers of any job protections.

This is how I understand it, as the parent of a child who currently attends public school.

Do public school children deserve the small class sizes, humane and progressive pedagogy that releases the unique potential of every child to excel, an engaging curriculum, and nurturing environment that private school students (and ones in charters) supposedly receive? The answer is yes. This is what Chicago teachers are fighting for. They have the audacity to insist that the 80% of children who qualify for free- and reduced- lunch in Chicago Public Schools ALSO deserve art, music, drama, science, history, libraries, textbooks, and properly temperature-controlled and spacious classrooms.

I know what fully-funded public schools are capable of, as someone who would be classified Generation X: schools with a working wood/electrical shop, home economics classes, three drama productions a year, art, music, physical and earth sciences — all in the school day, plus chorus, jazz band, and marching band extracurriculars at my school in working class small-town New York. Norquist-esque fetishes for “no taxes ever” attitudes that de-fund public schools had not yet taken root.

More and more we see commodity stratification in the name of “value-add” — instead of a baseline of good, to which increments of excellence are added (that people pay more for), corporations push the floor lower and make us pay for what used to be baseline good. Want to sell bottled water? Tell people that free, previously safe to drink tap water is lead-contaminated and then to be doubly sure, pollute the water table. Corporations profit from extracting — or subtracting — health, safety, competence from our lives, then claiming the delta between a lowered floor and a minimum baseline of good is a “value” they “added.” Isn’t this form of incentive, to create value by subtracting it from our lives first, exactly backwards?

The same is happening to public education. Corporate ed reform commodifies education and pushes the floor lower on what used to be good baseline public schooling (using hobbles like teach-to-the-test, austerity cuts that strip away music/art/drama/history/science/PE, or charters culling the least expensive children to teach in a two-tiered system). Corporate ed “reformers” do this so private schools can present a rich engaging curriculum with music/art/drama/history/science/PE as worth $40,000 a year.

Capitalism hates when the public sector provides good quality services universally, because then lazy capitalists have to work harder to add value. (Look at health insurers. You’d think a medical loss ratio that guarantees them a profit margin of 15% through the Affordable Care Act is generous. Not so when before the ACA’s passage, they enjoyed up to $0.35 per insured person’s $1.00, or 35%, in “overhead” or profits.) It’s much simpler and more profitable to push the floor down to unhealthy, dangerous, or poor quality levels and claim to “add value” up to what should be the baseline minimum standard of where a civilization starts.

So, public school parents, do you have the temerity to demand that public schools teach your child a broad and deep curriculum that’s engaging and nurtures the gifts waiting to be unlocked in your child, in a small class size where she gets the attention she needs? And demand that this be the case for ALL children? Many of us do, and lacking political power on our own, we should ally with teachers who demand the same. This isn’t about unions, this is another 99% versus the 1% argument… the same argument that desegregation was about, the same argument that school busing was about — not a life raft for a few, but a tide strong enough to lift all boats.

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I'm Cynthia Liu, Owner/Founder of K12 News Network. I'm the proud product of public schools through post-grad, the mom of a child in public schools, and the daughter of two teachers. Connect with me professionally on LinkedIn.

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