On the CTU Strike: Don’t Blame Teachers, Work With Them

Reposted from In Our Words: A Salon for Queers & Co.

If you’ve been even peripherally watching the news this past week, you probably know that the teachers at Chicago Public Schools have been on strike since Monday, after months of fighting with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and special interest groups over the abhorrent conditions under which teachers are expected to work in our city. The former would have us believe that it is the latter’s fault that only 44.6 percent of CPS students meet or exceed the Illinois Learning Standards, that Chicago has one of the highest dropout rates in the nation, and that 74 percent of the schools in the CPS system did not make Average Yearly Progress for two consecutive years as of 2011-2012.* They buy the usual capitalist neoliberal gospel; that it’s about individual ability and willpower alone that makes a great teacher, that they should be able to overcome buildings that are un-air conditioned, infested with bedbugs, lacking Internet connectivity, and enormous class sizes, because they have  a divine mandate to instruct America’s Children™. Any failure in this regard simply means that they are Bad Teachers, and thus must be fired and exiled somewhere, to be replaced by non-union, corporate-run charter schools, which because they’re all about the free market, will succeed where the bleeding hearts failed.

Now, anyone who listens in on the debate around public school education in the United States knows that that last part is utter and complete hogwash. Charter schools have been shown to be no better, performance-wise, than public schools. Emanuel and out of state cronies are waving an empty solution at a catastrophic problem, and they haven’t been doing it half heartedly; with the help of outside business interests, Emanuel raised the strike threshold for the union to 75 percent, which was then smugly trumpeted by Jonah Edelman, head of Stand for Children, as having crippled the CTU’s ability to strike. The city has also refused to place limits on class size, as well as refusing to grant teachers a four percent pay raise that was agreed upon. Out of state groups have even hired paid protesters to demonstrate against the teachers’ union.

This continuous campaign against teachers is completely baffling to me, far more so than lower-class Tea Partiers who vote Republican, against their interests, or even those who find cricket entertaining (I will never understand that latter bit, ever). I went to a public high school for four years; in fact, before college, I was in public schools my entire life. While I might loathe with a furious passion most of the people I attended that high school with, I can’t say the same for most of my teachers, particularly my English instructors, who always challenged me to do better, to read more, to find my own voice in my writing. Tom Gaffigan, my AP teacher senior year, will always be a huge hero and mentor to me, someone whose influence I see every time I sit down to type, whenever I’m reading and annotating, and someone who I am fortunate to call a friend.

I know that I am lucky, and privileged, to have had the experience I did. I won’t say there is no such thing as a bad teacher; there is, and I have had many of them. But the answer is not to join Emanuel, Arne Duncan, and other corporate hacks in the destruction of public education in America. The answer is instead to support our teachers so that we can give them the classrooms and infrastructure that they need to make sure we don’t find ourselves with a failed generation in a decade. Rather than blame teachers exclusively, let’s work with them to tackle the real issues at hand: youth poverty, demographic shifts, and the resegregation of schools. How we deal with them, and how hard we fight against charter schools and privatization, will determine whether American education can flourish again, or whether it will fail completely.

This week, it looks like Chicago teachers may have won. But those that want to end public education will be back, and the systemic issues facing public schools will remain. Wearing a red shirt isn’t enough to change our schools for the better.

*Stats via Pedro Noguera at The Nation

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