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Solidarity With Chicago

by Miriam Axel-Lute on September 12, 2012


First of all, if you’re reading this on the day it comes out, and you haven’t voted in the primary yet, put it down, go vote, and then come back. Please and thank you.

OK. That taken care of, a few notes on the Chicago Teachers Union strike, which as of this writing, was in full swing and raising a lot of debate.

This is a really important moment. If you make the mistake (as I did, even though I know better) of wading through the open comment threads on the strike you will hear endless bellyaching about overpaid teachers and passionate defenses of how they don’t actually make that much especially given their 60–80 hour weeks.

Now, failure to follow through on their promised raises is one of their strike points. But what’s so interesting here is it’s not the major issue. Whenever I’ve had conversations with those who are generally supportive of labor rights and yet conflicted about feeling like teachers’ unions often seem to be largely invested in wages and tenure issues, there has been a lot of sentiment like, “If only the unions would really go to bat for what the kids need.”

Well folks, here they are. If you take a look at the Chicago Teachers Union study, The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve, you’ll see a 10-point platform that has to do with equality, sufficient staffing, age-appropriate learning, and whole-child education. And one of the major bones of contention of the strike is Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s TIF plan that diverts funding into a few special charter/magnet schools at the expense of the public schools in general. (Note to Rahm: If Paul Ryan lends you his unequivocal support, it might mean you’re doing something wrong.)

Chicago’s struggle with charters—where the new schools that have been shown to produce, at best, the same results as the old ones, and siphon off so many resources that other kids are left behind in crumbling buildings with soaring class sizes—will certainly sound familiar to those here in Albany.

But it also made me think of a stunning article from last December in the Atlantic about Finland, called “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success,” Finland, on account of its startlingly high scores on international comparisons of educational attainment (even compared to its demographically similar Scandinavian neighbors), has become a bit of a mecca for education reformers. We have oohed-and-aahed at how they don’t push standardized testing, don’t push early reading, encourage play-based learning longer.

But, according to the Atlantic article, what we can’t seem to get our brains around is that the foundation of the current Finnish education system is almost the opposite of our beloved idea of “school choice.” It’s this: equity. “The main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location,” says the Atlantic. They feed all the kids healthy meals and give them access to health care. They have no private schools at all. They give their teachers “prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility” (and independence). Schools with high numbers of immigrants . . . do just as well as other schools.

They don’t aim for excellence. They aim to bring everyone along and level the playing field. And they get . . . excellence.

I think one of the most important things about the Chicago Teachers Union strike is not to let the story get lost in a few stock narratives about supposedly “overpaid” teachers, or everyone dragging out that story of the one burnt-out teacher they knew who should have been fired and wasn’t supposedly because of a union rule. Let’s not get dragged into these infighting narratives. Unions aren’t perfect. That’s not the point. They are a crucial counterweight to organized money.

Most teachers out there are working really really hard at a task that is being made harder by the day with ridiculous testing requirements, loss of subjects beyond the ones on the tests, shrinking resources, and administrations that don’t have their backs. CTU had a 90 percent vote in favor of the strike—overcoming a rule that had been designed to prevent them from striking by imposing a requirement for 75 percent in favor. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have that kind of result if it weren’t coming from a desire to help the kids as well as their own working conditions (which goals are intertwined anyway). That’s amazing consensus to take on something as big and scary as going on strike. It deserves our attention beyond a knee-jerk reaction.