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The Chicago teachers strike and the war on teachers

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Message Gregory Patin
This article was originally published at Madison Independent Examiner. A slideshow is available for viewing there.

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A "threat to the establishment" protests in Madison, WI in February, 2011. Photo by Gregory Patin.

Former White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was part of Obama's war cabinet. As Chicago mayor, he is waging a war against teachers. With the emphasis on standardized test results and the voucher system, teachers in Wisconsin are facing a similar assault.

It is back to school time, which means it is also time for the pundits in the corporate media, the Tea Party, the GOP, Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan and politicians such as Rahm Emanuel and Scott Walker to chastise those who have the audacity to work in the public sector, teaching in public schools.

The big headlines are currently being made by the Chicago public school (CPS) teachers and their union, the CTU. The issues that CPS teachers are raising with their strike, however, are part of a much larger national trend.

According to the Occupied Chicago Tribune, there are four primary reasons the Chicago teachers are on strike. Of course, there are other reasons, but these are the four main points of contention:

  1. A better school day: A comprehensive education including not only curricula in math, science and history but also art, music, physical education and foreign languages in all Chicago Public Schools.
  2. Wraparound services and adequate staffing to support students in need: This includes counselors, social workers, librarians and school nurses with defined job descriptions as well as preparation and break time.
  3. Recall rights for educators and school staff: Hundreds of teachers have already been displaced by school closures across the city and more will be by the planned closing of at least 100 more schools in the coming years.
  4. Fair compensation: No merit pay, less reliance on standardized tests and pay commensurate to increased time in the classroom as well as inflation. CPS reneged last year on the contractually obligated 4 percent pay raise negotiated in 2007 and is currently offering annual 2 percent raises over the next four years. An independent fact-finder's report released in July recommended pay raises of 15-18 percent next year.

A closer look at the public school system in Chicago and those in other states reveals even more disturbing trends in K-12 education. The most disturbing, perhaps, are the trends toward privatization with voucher systems and the reliance on standardized testing in performance evaluations of teachers.

Investigative reporter Greg Palast sums up these two trends in a good example:

In a school with some of the poorest kids in Chicago, one English teacher - I won't use her name - who'd been cemented into the school system for over a decade, wouldn't do a damn thing to lift test scores, yet had an annual salary level of close to $70,000 a year. Under Chicago's new rules holding teachers accountable and allowing charter schools to compete, this seniority-bloated teacher was finally fired by the principal.

In a nearby neighborhood, a charter school, part of the city system, had complete freedom to hire. No teachers' union interference. The charter school was able to bring in an innovative English teacher with advanced degrees and a national reputation in her field - for $29,000 a year less than was paid to the fired teacher.

You've guessed it by now: It's the same teacher.

Teachers across the country have been facing layoffs and increasingly poorer working conditions. Over a year after mass protests in Madison and a June recall election that failed to unseat Gov. Scott Walker, things are not looking well for teachers in Wisconsin either.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WDPI) reported that 73 percent of school districts in the state cut teachers, and there are nearly 1,500 fewer teaching jobs statewide this year than there were last year. Teachers nationally are part of the more than 600,000 public sector jobs that have been cut since the end of 2008.

The reliance on standardized testing that began with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2004 (a.k.a. No Child's Behind Left), has become a failed, unfunded policy that teachers are paying for with their jobs.

Here is an actual question on a test written by the nation's biggest for-profit testing company and given to third-grade children in NYC: "...Most young tennis stars learn the game from coaches at private clubs. In this sentence a private club is...." Then children have some choices in which the right answer is "Country Club - place where people meet."

How many children living on the south side of Chicago, where there are probably very few tennis courts and country clubs, would know the answer to that? A teacher there may lose their job over students unable to answer that and other similar questions, while teachers in wealthy school districts will get rewarded for the good test results that come with teaching in districts that have tennis courts and country clubs. What exactly is being tested, knowledge or socio-economic status?

Private charter schools, funded by high tuition and "vouchers," are also part of the problems that teachers are facing. When President Obama lived in Chicago, he played basketball with city school chief Arne Duncan, but Obama sent his children to the Hyde Park Day school in Chicago, apparently with the idea that CPS schools were not good enough for them. The tuition at Hyde is $35,900 per year. The most generous voucher program in the country is Washington DC's, which offers $7500 per year.

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Gregory Patin is a free-lance writer residing in Madison, WI. He earned a BA in political science from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and a MS in IT management from Colorado Tech. He is politically independent and not affiliated with either (more...)
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