Chicago teachers bargain to transform education

When the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) on March 27 began negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, CTU President Karen Lewis was joined at the bargaining table by 50 teachers and education support personnel representing CTU members.

The union is bargaining for a new collective bargaining agreement that transforms education in Chicago.

“Our new contract will reflect our values as educators, and the stake we have—and our city should have—in the education of the children we serve,” said Lewis. “There is absolutely no greater interest for our members than the lives of their students, and we look forward to honest, transparent conversations with the (CPS) Board on how to strengthen the district and provide adequate resources for all of its students, their families, and the city our students deserve.”

The union wants smaller class sizes, more preparation time for teachers, adequate support staffing such as nurses, counselors, librarians, etc. at all schools, but especially in those schools in under served communities, and for CPS to make pre-K classes available to more working class families.

But the union’s bargaining demands go much further.

To make education more participatory and more relevant, the union wants CPS to create 50 sustainable community schools where communities and students will participate in developing curriculum that “reflects the experience and identities of our students.”

CTU’s most far-reaching demands challenge economic and educational orthodoxy.

For example, the orthodox view on teaching is that it isn’t really a profession. It doesn’t require rigorous training and years of experience to master. In fact, it’s so easy that anyone with a college degree and youthful exuberance can teach and teach well.

That’s why a 1990s bipartisan piece of legislation created Teach for America, which pays our best and brightest college graduates a stipend to teach temporarily in communities where poverty is high and income low.

Teach for America isn’t about training a cadre of well qualified teachers with a long-term commitment to quality education.

It is, instead, about giving college graduates an opportunity to perform two years of community service before they embark on their real careers.

So far, Teach for America has done little to improve education in the US.

It has, however, provided charter school operators with a pool of temps who act as teachers. These low-paid temps help lower labor costs for charter school operators, which help boost their profits.

Some of CPS’ budget is used to subsidize the local Teach for America program.

CTU is proposing that CPS divert public tax dollars that subsidize Teach for America into a program that recruits and retains teachers and other education professionals committed to education as a career and profession.

CTU is calling this program Grow Your Own, and its purpose would be to help former CPS graduates return to Chicago’s public school classrooms as teachers and other education professionals, so that CPS can “develop a more diverse and local teaching force” that is committed to education for the long haul.

CTU is also calling for a moratorium on charter school expansion and union rights for those who work in charter schools.

The economic orthodoxy on public school funding is that money is scarce for all public services, especially public education; therefore, austerity measures such as closing neighborhood schools, cutting enrichment programs like music, art, and physical education, and laying off teachers and support staff are the only sensible way to deal with the problems of public education.

CTU has a different view. According to the union, money that should be going to fund quality education is being diverted to Wall Street and corporate America.

CTU is demanding that CPS and the city of Chicago take action to get that money back.

One of the union’s bargaining demands is for CPS to take legal action to recover at least $1 billion that CPS has lost to Wall Street banks because of excessive fees on bond deals, bond deals that were arguably fraudulent, and predatory lending practices, all of which have been documented in a recent ReFund America Project report entitled, ““Our Kind of Town: A Financial Plan that Puts Chicago’s Communities First.

In addition to being victimized by shady bond deals, hundreds of millions of dollars in public school revenue has been siphoned away to selected corporations.

The city of Chicago has a program called tax increment financing (TIF), which allows selected corporations to avoid paying taxes.

CTU is demanding that public revenue diverted to corporations by TIF be returned to Chicago’s schools.

“We demand that Chicago’s leaders treat our children as the priority—not the bankers and stock-traders who fund their campaigns,” said Jesse Sharkey, vice-president of CTU. “If we are to be accountable to the needs of our children, we will have to hold the wealthy accountable for the massive investments that our schools deserve.”

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