When Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis told a massive crowd of supporters that “This fight is for the very soul of public education, not only in Chicago but everywhere,” she was only partly right. 
In a broader sense the teacher strike in Chicago was a venue for a battle in the war to shape American society.
It pits the national ‘reform’ movement, a seemingly unlikely alliance of prominent elected Democratic officials, including President Barack Obama, Education Secretary Arnie Duncan and the newly elected Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, their appointees and well-funded entrepreneurs, corporate education reformers and privitizers, against Chicago teachers and their union led by Ms. Lewis.
Emanuel, a former congressman and top White House aide to President Barack Obama, received far more money in campaign donations from wealthy financiers and entrepreneurs backing school reform than from unions. Donations to Emanuel from the labor movement were few and far between as unions considered Emanuel to be a shill for corporate interests.
CTU’s complaints echo the broader ones of teachers across America: a sense of unfairness and blindness to the reality that teachers say they face: hunger, homelessness, racial and economic isolation, inequality and violence, ballooning class sizes, over emphasis on standardized tests, and teacher layoffs as school budgets are cut. Teachers are being asked to come up with solutions to problems that the majority of society long ago gave up on.
In his article “Chicago Teachers Strike A Push-Back to Education Reform,” Peter S. Goodman explains the spot teachers are in:
Although many parents support the teachers, other parents see the public schools as very much inferior to charters and have no interest in saving them. These parents feel that teachers have the attitude that completely ignores students: “I’m going to get my check whether you learn or not.”
Starved of resources, many schools are indeed struggling to offer quality experiences for students, and parents are choosing the alternative: charters. The more capacity that gets added at charters, the more that informed and active parents will move their children to these programs. Public schools not only loose the funding for these students but also the advocacy and involvement of these parents. This weakens those schools and strengthens the arguments of educational reform proponents: it becomes easier to brand public schools as “failures,” seemingly justifying their closure and laying the groundwork for the further expansion of charter institutions.”
Ostensibly, in addition to encouraging charter schools, the ‘reform’ movement’s agenda includes rating educators by their students’ test scores,and weakening job protections such as tenure and seniority, issues that prompted Chicago teachers to strike. But the real reason for the ‘reform’ movement is corporate self-interest:
- Pure profit; there is a ton of money to be made in the education ‘reforms’ that corporate interests are advocating;
- Changing the subject from poverty – economic inequality that is the result of the current economic system, to teacher quality or union membership or school organization as the primary driver of student achievement;
- Destroying the unions; unions form the bulk of the political opposition to pro-Wall-Street initiatives such as lowering corporate taxes, deregulating corporations or privatizing social security.
Howard Gardner puts the Chicago Teachers Strike and the debate about the need for education reform in perspective:
“In the U.S., we have a figure/ground problem. The dominant figure has become test scores and international comparisons — everything is focused on this ‘league table’ mentality. As a person who believes in the United States as it once was, the ‘figure’ should be the kind of society that we want to have and the kind of human beings that we want to nurture. All education, including testing and ranking, should be organized around the attainment of that vision.”.