Chicago teachers strike | Post-mortem

The details of the new contract between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union are coming out in drips and drabs. Obviously, the big-ticket item here is that the strike is over, the teachers are heading back to work, the kids are on their way to the classroom, and all in time to maybe save the National Jobs Report. I say that jokingly, but it is true that this strike had obvious national implications. And while you'll hear a lot about who "won" or "lost" based on the language in the articles of the contract, it's important to try to extract larger lessons from the strike.

  1. The current "education reform" movement was put on the stand, and did not do well. An interesting facet of the dialogue surrounding the strike: even the union's serious opponents often conceded that the current ed reform model—at least as embraced by former schools CEO Arne Duncan, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and, yes, President Barack Obama—has serious flaws. Everyone wants teachers to be rigorously evaluated and bad ones removed, but few confuse standardized tests for rigor, though that was what Rahm pushed. Many reformers love the idea of a charter school being able to hire and fire its lower-paid teachers without union constraints, but are forced to admit that despite many advantages, charters aren't performing better than the schools they replace. One of the most insightful moments in CTU president Karen Lewis's press conference after the strike was suspended came when she spoke about the district's desire to give principals accountability, allowing them to hire their own teachers. This sounds like a no-brainer, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel hammered that point home in press conferences throughout the strike. But Lewis claimed the problem with that is that the district moves principals in and out of schools so quickly, that there's no consistency in the leadership, which means there would be no consistency in the teaching. Lewis said she was concerned about "stability in public education," and that the corporate model of hiring and firing executives (i.e. principals) who bring in their own staff, only to leave a couple years later, is detrimental to the functioning of the school. So many of the "reform" talking points sound great: teacher accountability, charter choice and principal autonomy, but when you drill down into what all of these imply, only more questions surface. And this strike, was basically a giant drill.

  2. Occupy Wall Street may have moved to the fringe of the mainstream consciousness, but its legacy is strong. Count me among the early supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement who felt that OWS missed its opportunity to grab hold of the national conversation. It seemed just as it caught its stride, OWS was reduced to sloganeering about percentages and fighting for the right to sleep in the park, and the arguments for economic and social justice fell by the wayside. But anyone who spent any time at the various teacher rallies or on the picket lines picked up on the OWS legacy immediately. Though I only saw a few picketing teachers directly borrow the OWS rhetoric, you could hear it in the edges of the speeches, and certainly in the technique of pushing the demonstration into the heart of the city. It felt as though the union was energized and emboldened by the legacy of OWS, that there was a like-mindedness in the air already, and that people were already receptive to a many of the economic justice and equality arguments the teachers made. I don't know if you would have seen as forceful a push from the striking teachers if OWS hadn't been out there already. And, while this is more obvious, ditto the labor rebellion against Wisconsin Scott Walker's policies. There was a disconcerting number of foam cheeseheads at the rallies.

  3. It's getting more and more difficult to believe in Rahm Emanuel as mayor. So let's just get this straight: Rahm petulantly slammed the union during negotiations, and even went so far as to try to sue the teachers of the city for continuing to strike, none of which cultivated a perception that he was in control. You may side with Rahm on the issues, but it's hard to agree with his tactics. The fact that on the night of the strike, he conducted his speech from the Harold Washington Library Center was priceless. There he was, standing in the center of a system that provides much-needed services to the children and lower-income families of Chicago, the same system that he tried to gut a year before, talking smack about the Chicago public school system. He went on about how Chicago had the shortest school day and shortest school year, and that there were bad teachers that needed to be removed, and the teachers were making a selfish choice over their students, and that children in Estonia were learning computer programming in the first grade (that was a weird moment). The mayor whose kids are in private school did more damage to the public school system in that one speech than the strike did in seven days (with help from Karen Lewis: It was hard to listen to the one-two punch of their speeches and feel like any kid in Chicago should ever enter a CPS building). Last year, when Emanuel convinced Sara Lee to move its headquarters from the suburbs to Chicago, he was asked if the city was in a "battle" with the suburbs for businesses. And he said that winning the deal didn't imply a battle, but it "implied being the DNA of an Emanuel." So I think it's only right for Chicagoans to now ask: What has the Emanuel DNA gotten us besides a frozen desserts company?

  4. Parents will be much more involved from here on, and that's the best thing that could come out of this strike. As the parent of a kid about to enter the CPS system, I know firsthand how enormous and daunting it can seem. But parents need to have a voice at the table when it comes to the direction of the nation's third-largest public schools system, and especially when the two opposing sides are as intractible as a Karen Lewis–led union and a Rahm–led district. Parents came out in droves to walk the picket lines or cheer at rallies, and they also produced their own signs and held their own rallies against the strike. Here's hoping that some of that energy persists and results in a larger movement of parents getting involved. There's already a new organization calling itself Chicago Students First that hopes to provide a non-partisan voice for students.

  5. The issues are so much larger than even what was discussed in the strike. The single biggest issue facing the Chicago Public School system isn't teacher evaluation, teacher salary, length of school day or even the pluses and minuses of charters. It's funding, pure and simple. Illinois is now last in the nation in terms of how much a state funds its public schools, a fact that was glossed over during the strike thanks to the sheer multitude of contentious issues. But this one remains the largest roadblock to a healthy, functioning school system. Groups like the Raise Your Hand Coalition have been beating their heads against the wall trying to get people to take up this cause. Here's hoping the energy behind the strike focuses in that direction.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)