Chicago Public School students were back in school last Wednesday, after the Chicago Teacher Union and the Chicago School Board ended a seven-day standoff over classroom conditions and labor disputes. The CTU has released its tentative agreement with CPS, which will be ratified by union members in the coming weeks.
The deal has been largely heralded as a victory for union teachers, who won a 17.6 percent pay increase over four years and some level of protection from district lay-offs and firings. But worker benefits weren’t all Chicago teachers were marching for. As Karen Lewis said in a press release announcing the CTU’s strike:
This education crisis is real especially if you are Black or Brown in Chicago…They want to privatize public education and further disrupt our neighborhoods. There is an attack on public institutions, many of which serve, low-income and working-class families.
Throughout the strike, Chicago teachers were adamant their call was not just for higher wages, but for more equality in the most segregated school district in the country. But how much of the new agreement promises help for Chicago’s neediest schools?
So far, CPS has agreed to look into increasing resources, without making any hard promises. Many schools serving low-income students lack air conditioning, which the Board agreed to “investigate” and “determine a time table” to address. It increased the funding for a Class Size Monitoring Panel, but did not ensure “enforceability.” Other issues—like the 160 public schools without their own library—weren’t mentioned.
CPS did agree to hire up to 100 more student nurses and social workers, “if the board receives additional funding.” Many high schools currently share a single social worker for their 1,000-plus student body with neighboring schools. The agreement required all elementary schools to have a full-time counselor on staff.
Despite the CTU’s discussion of an “apartheid-like” system, the agreement makes no reference to the growing segregation of Chicago Public School students. It does nod to a growing trend of displacing tenured, often African-American teachers with younger, increasingly white, recent college graduates. CPS promised to “[set] up a systemic plan to search for and recruit racially diverse candidates."
But perhaps the most significant victory isn’t one clearly outlined in a contract. “The strike is part of a larger movement to push back on school reform,” said Dr. Kevin Kumashiro, founder of the Center for Anti-Oppressive Education. “Too much attention to the details pulls away from what the strike symbolizes.”
Teachers unions around the country showed solidarity last week, posting messages, donating money and sending busses of teachers to Chicago to march alongside the CTU. It’s illegal in many states for teachers to strike, but that didn’t keep teachers in Tennessee from “talking about the need for public sector organizing, fights against privatization and corporate-led ‘reform’ efforts, and building crucial community-labor coalitions.”
Pushback against neoliberal education reform is really a resistance to growing educational inequality, Kumashiro said. “You are automatically going after the schools that are struggling the most,” he said of Chicago’s Rennaisance 2010 plan to “turnaround” struggling schools by firing teachers and bringing in private charter programs. Such policies are “making larger problems like segregation even worse.”
Activists like Kumashiro say a focus on charter programs takes resources from schools that need them most, and threatens them with closure or private takeover. According to research by Pauline Lipman at the University of Illinois at Chicago, schools slated for “turnaround” in Chicago are almost exclusively in communities of color.
Many believed a focus on “school choice” through the charter system would decrease segregation. But a study from the UCLA Civil Rights Project found “higher levels of segregation for black students in charter schools compared to traditional public schools.” And according to Chicago-area news outlet WBEZ, racial separation in Chicago schools has grown in the last twenty years.
Chicago teachers did successfully lessen the importance of standardized testing and win some protections for teachers. Though the strike is over, the battle for rethinking education reform is not.
“[We should] invest in making every school great, instead of treating education as a marketplace…learning like a commodity and students like customers,” Kumashiro said. “That is what we should be striving for.”