Letter from the US: Chicago teachers' strike defies onslaught on education

September 12, 2012
Striking teachers in Chicago marched on September 10.

The Chicago teachers’ strike entered its third day on September 12. This strike is of national significance for a number of reasons:

* It is a militant fightback against the ruling class onslaught to destroy public education being carried out by Democrats and Republicans across the country.

* It is aimed at the policies of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party machine in Chicago headed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, longtime aide, advisor and fundraiser for Obama.

*It is being organised by a new rank-and file-leaders with a class-struggle perspective.

A central issue in the fight is the bid by Emanuel to impose a system of evaluation of students and teachers based on standardised testing.

Under this system, which is being imposed in varying degrees across the country, teachers would be evaluated according to how well students did on the standardised tests.

The object is to eliminate teachers’ job security and provide school boards with wide latitude to fire teachers for their political views or other reasons.

This would make it easier to fire teachers in schools in poorer neighborhoods, especially Black and Latino ones, since it is in these schools that the crisis in education is most pronounced.

The use of standardised testing dumbs down the classroom. It forces teachers to teach to the test, and students to learn to the test. Many studies show that it makes no improvement in the quality of education.

It ties down teachers’ abilities to be creative in the classroom, to take into account the actual needs of students, especially those from areas of high unemployment, poverty and other social ills exacerbated by the economic depression.

Standardised testing in a few subjects is part and parcel of cutting funds for public education. Who needs skilled teachers when they could be replaced by computers teaching by rote, or untrained teachers at low wages?

For years in Chicago, the school board has been slashing services.

Things that have been cut include: art and music classes, physical education, recess time for children to play, and classes in languages other than English. The union wants these restored.

Many Chicago schools do not have basic playground and gym equipment, and 160 lack libraries. Many schools don’t have air conditioning, a basic need in a city where the weather can be very hot and humid.

Roofs leak. Schoolbooks often do not get delivered for up to six weeks after classes begin.

Students do not learn well under such conditions.

The union is also demanding that bloated class sizes imposed in recent years be cut back. It is common knowledge that learning drops as class size increases.

The union is also fighting to restore adequate staffing levels for teachers, paraprofessionals, social workers, school nurses, counselors, psychologists and librarians, all of which have been slashed.

Part of the teachers’ fight is to oppose privatisation of schools. Increasingly in Chicago and across the country, the drive is on to starve public schools and force parents who can afford it to send their children to for-profit private schools.

Those children whose parents can not afford private schools will suffer from a poor education as a result. Since parents in this category disproportionably come from racial minorities, this amounts to educational apartheid.

This is the meaning of Obama’s education reform he calls “the race to the top”.

The perversity of this policy is evident in the fact that funds for schools that need it most are being slashed while funds for better performing schools are being increased.

Emanuel is a stanch advocate for private schools, where he sends his own children.

Unlike many cities, Chicago does not have an elected school board. Its board is appointed by the mayor. Emanuel has stuffed it with billionaires, CEOs of private corporations and other scions of the 1% he is close friends with.

This is the gang leading the assault on public education in Chicago.

From 2001 through 2008, the chief executive of the Chicago school board was Arne Duncan. Under his direction the cutbacks to the public schools were accelerated.

In 2009, Obama appointed Duncan as his Secretary of Education, the president’s point man for “the race to the top”.

The teachers’ opponents are not only the entrenched and notoriously corrupt Democratic machine in Chicago but the national Democratic Party.

Coming in the middle of the election campaign, the strike is an embarrassment to Obama. The Democratic Party pulled out all stops to get the teachers to knuckle under, but they held firm.

The Republicans, not to be outdone, have joined in the effort to demonise the teachers. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney denounced the strike and initially falsely claimed that Obama supported the teachers.

The more clear-headed Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, quickly jumped in, and expressed solidarity with Emanuel in a bi-partisan show of support.

The strike has been well-prepared and organised. Key to this has been a struggle over the years by militant teachers in the Chicago Teachers Union for a class struggle policy against an entrenched bureaucracy.

In 2008, the Caucus of Responsible Educators (CORE) was formed, which waged an educational campaign in the union that culminated in CORE being elected to the leadership of the CTU in 2010.

It is significant that socialist teachers, including members of Solidarity and the International Socialist Organization, are playing important roles in the strike, shoulder to shoulder with their union sisters and brothers.

The new leaders prepared for the struggle, tirelessly explaining the issues to the rank and file. Very importantly, they reached out to the public, including the Black and Latino communities, winning wide support for their fight for public education.

In June, as Emanuel stonewalled negotiations, 90% of the members of the CTU voted to authorize the strike. Of those who voted, 98% voted to strike.

On September 3, Labor Day in the US, the largest demonstration of workers in the country was in Chicago. They were spearheaded by thousands of teachers in red T-shirts, rallying in preparation for the strike if the city did not come to terms with the teachers’ demands.

On the day of the strike, thousands of teachers in their red T-shirts picketed the schools, marched on the homes of various villains of the school board, distributed leaflets throughout the city, and then thousands and thousands rallied in the afternoon in downtown Chicago.

They were joined by many students in green T-shirts, parents and other supporters.

The union is publishing a daily strike bulletin to keep the membership up to date. Well-organised picketing duty mobilises the ranks. The thousands of picketers are fed lunch each day.

A friendly pizza parlor is taking orders from people around the country who are donating money to help feed the picketers. I have just sent US$100 from my Social Security check.

The press has singled out CTU president Karen Lewis, who is an effective spokesperson and fiery leader. But as she told the rally on the first day of the strike: “This fight is not about Karen Lewis. Let’s be clear — this fight is for the very soul of public education, not just only Chicago but everywhere.”

The stakes are high in this battle, and it has become the most important working class fightback since Occupy.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]

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