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Why are the Chicago Teachers on Strike, Anyway?

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Chicago Teachers Union strike, September 10, 2012

CREDIT: Spencer Tweedy/Flickr

When the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike last week for the first time in 25 years, 350,000 local students were left without classes to go to. Mainstream media outlets like The New York Times condemned the strikes as being harmful to students and their families. And critics wondered what Chicago teachers have to complain about when their salaries are among the highest for teachers in the country.

So why does the strike have such broad public support in the city of Chicago? Why are the streets full of smiling cops and horns honking in solidarity?

Maybe because this time, it’s about something much bigger than pay or benefits.

“This is a fight for public education and, thus, for our children,” Chicago teacher Anthony James said.

While issues like the length of the school day and benefits packages are also at stake, striking teachers want to convey this message most of all: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) is trying to crush the teachers union and privatize the city’s school system, leading to less job security for all teachers and poorer education outcomes for many students. Meanwhile, classes of 30-50 students suffer in 96-degree classrooms and at-risk students aren’t getting adequate social services.

Young and old, tenured and not, Chicago teachers are in this together. Despite bills designed to keep them from striking by requiring a 75 percent authorization vote, 98 percent of CTU members who voted (and 90 percent of all members) authorized the strike.

Micah Uetricht, an organizer with Arise Chicago who has been covering the strikes on the ground, told Campus Progress that young teachers especially, while not excited to be on strike, agreed that it's important.

“All of the teachers I know and have met this week see themselves as educators for the long haul; they see teaching as their life’s work,” said Uetricht. “And they seem to see this strike as primarily about the long-term.”

Many in the mainstream media, including The New York Times, are missing the systemic reasons why the stakes are so high for Chicago teachers—and for teachers everywhere, since Chicago has served as a model for federal initiatives like the Race to the Top program.

The destructive cycle goes something like this:

First, the mayor's over-reliance on standardized testing distorts the truth about which teachers are effective, could cost 6,000 teachers their jobs, according to CTU President Karen Lewis, who has called the system "unacceptable." Many education experts—including the director of the private school where Emanuel sends his kids—disagree with the mayor's policy, which makes standardized testing count for 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

Poor testing results, in large part, lead to shuttered public schools, leaving an opening for privatization advocates like Emanuel to fund more charter schools—despite the fact that charter schools do no better than public schools on average.

Students’ lives are disrupted by school closures, which can lead to increased violence, worsened performance, and the reinforcement of a two-tier education system of haves and have-nots.

Charter school teachers are non-unionized, which means they can be paid less and have fewer protections—a chief reason the CTU is fighting for principals to be required to hire laid-off union teachers first.

While public schools face a $665 million budget shortfall and languish from underfunding and over-testing, Emanuel has diverted hundreds of millions of dollars to corporations from a fund that is supposed to help blighted communities and schools.

When these funds did go to education, they disproportionately fund wealthier schools.

All of these are reasons why CTU members voted overwhelmingly to authorize the strike, and why so much of the public has their backs.

“The future of the American public education is at stake in this fight,” said Uetricht. “People make these kinds of claims all the time about union fights, but in this case, it’s actually true."

Emanuel, calling the strike "illegal," has asked the courts to step in, but failed to get an immediate injunction, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. The Chicago Teacher Union's House of Delegates is to meet on the contract issue Tuesday.

Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.

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