At William Ray Elementary School in Chicago, the usual happy din of morning drop-off was replaced by a strange, chaotic atmosphere this morning. According to the Chicago Tribune, lines of teachers were picketing the school, carrying heavy signs, playing drums and other musical instruments, and chanting, “Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, so we tell them: ‘We are the teachers. We are the parents. We are the students. We are the union, the mighty, mighty union.’ ” The Chicago teacher strike is on.
This is a common scene around the city today. For the first time in 25 years, Chicago Public Schools teachers went on strike this morning. Led by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), the strike affects approximately 350,000 students whose 26,000 teachers and supportive staff have entered the picket lines today. This kind of school shutdown means chaos for working parents who are left in the lurch, and police officers hoping to curtail trouble from idle students, have upped their forces on the streets.
Some parents are angry. “Get back to work,” parent Emily Lee recommended to teachers in an interview with USA Today. “The city is broke, children are getting murdered in the streets and education is the answer.” Other parents have brought their children with them to support the Chicago teacher strike by walking the lines.
After months of contract negotiations with school administrators, CTU and the school board could not come to an agreement over several key issues:
- Salary: the board has offered 16 percent increases over four years, but CTU is still concerned about how to balance the cost of rising healthcare.
- Teacher evaluations: A new system of evaluation would base teachers’ performance partly on standardized testing, something CTU finds unfair.
- Job Security: School closings are always a black cloud on the horizon (especially with a mayor who is supportive of bringing in charter schools).
- Classroom quality: CTU wants a better teacher-to-student ratio and more comfortable conditions—such as air conditioning—in the schools.
“This is a difficult decision for all of us to make,” said union President Karen Lewis in a statement just days before moving ahead with the strike. “But this is the only way to get the Board’s attention and show them we are serious about getting a fair contract which will give our students the resources they deserve.”
“CPS seems determined to have a toxic relationship with its employees,” Lewis continued. “They denied us our 4 percent raises when there was money in the budget to honor our agreement; they attempted to ram a poorly thought out longer school day down our throats; and, on top of that they want us to teach a new curriculum and be ready to be evaluated based on how well our students do on a standardized test. It has been insult after insult after insult. Enough is enough.”
According to CNN, the Chicago school board president David Vitale insisted there is no more money in the cash-strapped school system for further negotiation: “We have no more flexibility when it comes to finance.”
Last night, the Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a statement to numerous reporters in a television conference just after the union announced the strike. “This is not a strike I wanted,” he said. “It was a strike of choice...it's unnecessary, it's avoidable and it's wrong.”
Meanwhile, thousands of parents are trying to figure out what to do with their children today—and perhaps for the rest of the week, if not longer. About 140 schools are open for half of the day today for students to eat and engage in activities. However, teachers are picketing these schools and students have been encouraged by the district to try to find alternatives such as local churches, YMCAs, and other programs that are opening their doors to the displaced youth.
For parents, whether they support the teachers or not, frustration reigns. “"It's really awkward. We support the teachers but, on the other hand, what am I supposed to do with my kid? I have to go to work," Antonia Hernandez, mother of two small children, told a Chicago Tribune reporter outside one of the drop-off schools. "If we don't have [teachers, though] who will teach our children? It's time to have their demands met, every single one of them."
TakePart's Great Back-to-School Challenge features inspiring Chicago public school teachers in need of classroom supplies. Take a moment to help Ms. Griffin and her students with autism so when the Chicago teacher strike ends and her school reopens, she has the supplies needed to help her students thrive.
Are you for or against the Chicago teacher strike? Leave your thoughts in comments.