CTU calls for a “Marshall Plan” for schools

September 23, 2010

Lee Sustar reports on the latest development in the struggle of Chicago teachers.

THE PRESIDENT of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) called for the rehiring of displaced teachers and big spending to improve the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system at a school board meeting in September--while parents of children at an elementary school in the Pilsen neighborhood occupied a field house slated for demolition.

CTU President Karen Lewis' address at the Chicago Board of Education September 22 highlighted some of the agenda points of the new union leadership, which took office in June following an election victory over an old guard that dominated the union for most of the last 40 years.

As Lewis said:

Today, this board and this city have a historic opportunity to launch a broader school and community improvement plan--a type of Marshall Plan--to expand social and health services, create jobs and provide fully staffed and equitably resourced schools for historically impoverished communities. Schools must become again the anchor of our communities rather than the current sinking ship sailed by the Chicago Public Schools.

CTU members rally for funds to be used to rehire laid-off teachers
CTU members rally for funds to be used to rehire laid-off teachers (Lee Sustar | SW)

By making demands for increased social spending--the Marshall Plan was a reference to the U.S. government's massive aid program to rebuild Europe after the Second World War--the CTU is running directly counter to the push for austerity by CPS and Chicago city officials.

With local politics suddenly in flux after Mayor Richard Daley's surprise announcement that he won't seek reelection, the CTU--and organized labor generally--have the best opportunity in decades to put forward an alternative to Chicago's program of cutbacks and privatization of city services.

The school board meeting came a day after hundreds of CTU members and community allies held a downtown rally to protest CPS's failure to use the approximately $100 million in federal funds that the schools received as a result of the federal education jobs bill passed by Congress in August. At that rally, Lewis, along with other CTU leaders, rank-and-file teachers and activists from a range of organizations sent a message to city politicians that a labor-community alliance is taking shape.

Prominent at the protest were parents and community organizers from the largely Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen, where parents and activists on September 15 launched an occupation of the field house at Whittier Dual Language School.

Chicago Schools CEO Ron Huberman wants to demolish the field house--known in the community as "la casita"--and build a smaller addition to the school. But parents and community activists demand that the building be rehabbed to serve as a meeting center and a library--currently, the school has nowhere to store books.

"When parents, teachers and students have to engage in civil disobedience for a library, it is clear something is seriously wrong with the system," Lewis said.

But for the CTU president, the rehab of "la casita" is just the starting point. Speaking with reporters at the board meeting, she called for school buildings to be open until 8 p.m. to facilitate not only after-school programs, but ESL classes for immigrant parents and other courses.

"Parents come in and get their GED and learn computer skills to they can help their students," Lewis said. "Why can't parents have wraparound services, and therapy, and other things that our kids need?" Instead, she said, CPS is spending money on needless layers of bureaucracy, such as chief area officers who are supposed to oversee principals, but do nothing to improve school quality.

GIVEN THE CTU's agenda, the Whittier struggle looms large. After years in which CPS has closed dozens of schools for the stated reason of academic performance and disrupted vital links between teachers, students and communities, the battle over Whittier shows how teachers, parents and grassroots activists can unite to push for neighborhood schools with decent facilities.

"The parents and students here are heroes," said Nate Goldbaum, a Whittier teacher who recently went on leave to work for the CTU. "The work they've done to steadily build unity and support for this cause, their determination not to be ignored by CPS authorities, and their bold action are a model for teachers. As teachers face a full-on attack from the same bureaucrats who are determined to disenfranchise these parents, we would do well to learn from the Whittier moms."

While the battle to save schools rolls on, the CTU is in a short-term fight to put laid-off and displaced teachers back in the classroom. A survey of CTU delegates showed that half of schools reported a job loss of at least one tenured teacher--a dismissal usually carried out under the guise of a "program change."

Half of all schools report cuts in personnel, and one in three schools now have placeholders or substitutes. Two in five schools have hired new teachers with no teaching experience whatsoever, even as veteran teachers with years of seniority can't find work. "Why are they hiring new teachers when we have all these teachers let go, supposedly for reorganization or reallocation of funds and program cuts?" Lewis said.

Changing that situation will require a tough fight. CPS and Huberman are still holding on tight to as much education jobs money as they can, and school principals are asserting their prerogative to hire and fire with little or no regard to the contract. Moreover, CPS is laying the groundwork for more layoffs by asserting that the budget gap for the next school year will be even deeper than the $650 million deficit initially claimed for the current year.

All that means that the CTU will have to expand the community alliances it's made so far--an effort that's well underway. To that end, the union is working with other labor and community groups to mobilize for the October 2 protest in Washington, D.C. At the same time, the new CTU leadership is rebuilding the union's organizational capacity after years of decline and disarray.

All this amounts to a major challenge. But the union has opened the school year by declaring that it's stepping up to the fight.

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