Rahm plays the blame game

September 11, 2012

Teachers routinely get blamed for failing to overcome the obstacles politicians put in their path--but as Eric Ruder reports, Chicago teachers are challenging the attacks.

CHICAGO MAYOR Rahm Emanuel claims the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has launched a "strike of choice" that could have been avoided if teachers had been more "reasonable." But Emanuel's assertion is in flagrant contradiction of the facts--even the facts that CPS itself presents.

First of all, the CTU's contract with the city expired at the end of June, yet the union continued to negotiate through the summer, hundreds of teachers began classes weeks ago on August 13 without a contract, and the rest of the workforce started school on September 4. At any point, city officials could have come to the table with real proposals on the issues the CTU said must be addressed. Instead, they dragged their feet.

Nor could anyone claim they didn't know the CTU might strike. In fact, Rahm Emanuel's allies in the state legislature pushed through a state law last year specifically designed to stop a walkout. The legislation requires 75 percent of all CTU members--all members, not just those voting--to cast a "yes" vote in order to authorize a strike.

Teachers are winning the support of parents and students against Rahm Emanuel
Teachers are winning the support of parents and students against Rahm Emanuel (Annie Levin | SW)

Emanuel and friends thought this would prevent a strike from ever taking shape. But in June, nearly 90 percent of the union membership voted to authorize a walkout--including 98 percent of those who cast a ballot.

What members of the Chicago Teachers Union really "chose" was to stand up for themselves--in the face of the constant vilification of public-sector workers in general and teachers in particular. They chose to raise their voices--to refuse to be ignored by a city administration that has shown disregard for their working conditions and for the students they teach.

WHATEVER THEIR rhetoric to the contrary, CPS officials know this full well. A few days before the strike began, school officials distributed a "how-to guide" to hundreds of non-teachers staffing the more than 140 schools serving as "drop-off" centers during the strike. The guide is a tacit admission by CPS of how horrible conditions are at many Chicago schools.

According to the guide, those staffing schools should "wear a watch--your room may not have a functioning clock." Dress comfortably, too, because "many schools are NOT air-conditioned." Bring 30 sharpened pencils, 30 pens and a pencil sharpener. Also, "you will need to bring your own breakfast and lunch. Please note that you cannot rely on access to refrigerators or microwaves."

What you can do

For updates on the Chicago teachers' strike throughout the day, go to the SocialistWorker.org Facebook page.

Other important sources of information include the Chicago Teachers Union website and the CTU Twitter feed. Also check out the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign Facebook page.

The teachers need your financial support--please consider making a donation to the CTU Solidarity Fund.

If you are in Chicago, picketing will take place at schools in the morning, starting at 6:30 a.m. On Tuesday, the union is calling for a mass rally downtown at Daley Plaza, across from City Hall, at 2:30 p.m.

This won't come as news to supposedly pampered Chicago teachers. In one radio interview, strikers described classroom temperatures that regularly hit triple digits during the hot months at the beginning and end of the school year. One teacher said she stocked her classroom with a dozen ice packs--which she purchased herself--to treat heat exhaustion among her students.

Yet Rahm and CPS officials insist that teachers are responsible for poor performance among Chicago's students. Not only does this shift attention away from the city's unwillingness to provide decent facilities or hire enough teachers to bring down class sizes, but it is also an attempt to blame teachers for the crisis gripping the U.S. public school system, from coast to coast.

Teachers can't be expected to overcome the problems of hunger facing their students. They can't address the fact that poor kids don't have computers at home or even a good place to do their homework in some cases. And, of course, teachers can't overcome the fact that so many parents, overworked and underpaid themselves in their own jobs, don't have the time and energy to help children with homework.

On the first day of the strike, Rahm and the rest of the CPS bureaucracy repeatedly took to the airwaves to flog the idea that a strike is "unnecessary" because only a couple issues remain as sticking points in negotiations. "Finish it for our children," Emanuel said, playing to the TV cameras. "Two issues: an evaluation system designed by teachers, for teachers, revised by teachers [and] a system in which the local principal picks the most qualified teacher to teach."

CTU leaders pointed out that there are more than two issues still in dispute in negotiations. But Emanuel singled out these particular two issues because he knows they go to the heart of the city's ongoing assault on CTU members.

The focus of the city's proposed evaluation system is on standardized test scores to assess whether teachers are effective. But standardized tests are a horrible measure of teaching effectiveness. Research shows that they most accurately measure the ability to take standardized tests--not the ability to think critically or be creative. Evaluating teachers based on standardized test data would force teachers to focus on test-taking skills, rather than teaching kids how to be life-long learners.

ACCORDING TO CPS's own figures, the evaluation scheme could put nearly one-third of teachers on track for termination. But that's precisely the point. CPS is looking for ways to fire better-paid, senior teachers, in order to hire less expensive, inexperienced teachers. This is the city's strategy for carrying out austerity in the schools, while also shifting the blame for bad outcomes onto teachers and their union.

This is what's driving Emanuel's claim that he only wants principals to be able to "pick the most qualified teacher." His real concern isn't that, but to give CPS more power to get rid of senior teachers--who, because of their years of experience, are often singled out by students as the most effective. Their younger replacements are typically less well paid--but also importantly, administrators and principals gain an opportunity to silence outspoken opponents.

Take the example of Social Justice High School, in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Little Village established after a 19-day hunger strike by parents ended in victory in 2001.

This past summer, CPS dumped SoJo's popular principal in favor of a replacement who went on the offensive. Katie Hogan, a 12-year CPS teacher who helped found SoJo, and her colleague Angela Sangha--who together accounted for two-thirds of the school's English Department, with the third regular teacher on maternity leave--were forced out.

Last year, SoJo's English Department produced the best test scores in the school's history--the very criteria that CPS claims it cares about. But as veteran teachers earning better salaries and dedicated activists, Hogan and Sangha found themselves in the crosshairs. Fortunately, an inspiring student mobilization played a part in winning reinstatement for the two teachers.

But if Emanuel has his way, stories of this kind will multiply in Chicago schools.

Emanuel is being dishonest when he claims he only wants principals to be able to hire the "best teachers." He and CPS officials have implemented policies that push out better-paid veteran teachers. They also want to get rid of teachers who stand up for themselves and others.

This helps explain the bitterness toward Emanuel and CPS officials among striking teachers today. But even setting this aside, the effect of such polices on the quality of education is precisely the opposite of what Emanuel claims.

Study after study show that lower pay and higher rates of turnover produce lower student achievement--and CPS is a prime example. "CPS policies fail to support stable work environments in the most struggling schools," explains a CTU report titled "The Schools Chicago's Students Deserve." The report, which cites numerous leading education researchers and experts on the question, continues:

In CPS, teacher turnover is highest in low-income African American schools, with many losing a quarter of their teaching staff each year. Student achievement suffers from teacher turnover, and the impact is especially harmful to low-income students of color. Teachers sometimes take other positions in the middle of the school year, causing classrooms to be filled with substitute teachers for months. These are often the schools that fill positions by recruiting short-term teachers--those earning experience so they can go back to the suburbs to teach or teachers from Teach for America and other short-term alternative certification programs.

Despite the availability of displaced experienced teachers, CPS fills vacancies with newer and younger teachers. Younger teachers have universally higher attrition rates from their schools and the profession, so such recruitment only worsens the problem of turnover.

If Emanuel and CPS really cared about quality education for Chicago kids instead of balancing the budget on their backs, they would address the long-standing, well-documented challenges facing teachers, from overwhelming class sizes to lack of educational resources.

Instead, Emanuel blames teachers for failing to overcome the very obstacles he is putting in their way. And then, when the CTU decides to go on strike in order to compel the city to confront these issues, Emanuel claims to be "disappointed" and "mystified" by the teachers' "intransigence."

In the face of the city's shameless attempts to scapegoat them, teachers have shown enormous courage and determination. Their willingness to stand up for themselves, their students and the broader cause of high-quality, universal public education should be an inspiration to workers everywhere. That's why everyone who cares about social justice should stand with the teachers.

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