By FATIMA BADREDDINE
Although many Chicago students are probably thrilled to miss school, the teachers’ strike has had a critical impact on low-income families. Many parents have struggled1 to quickly find alternative childcare, which can be expensive. Some parents stayed home on the first day of the strike to care for their children. For example, one single mother claimed that she had to stay home from her job as a beautician to care for her children. Additionally, some schools have remained opened to provide children with breakfast and lunch, many of whom depend on schools for these meals. According to Reuters, more than 80% of Chicago Public School students come from low-income families and qualify for free school lunches. Whether it is the parents, churches, organizations, or city government, someone is paying the financial cost of these last-minute challenges, and the burden will likely fall on parents. This strike may lead to a significant economic impact on the city if it is not resolved soon, leaving many individuals wondering why this issue got so out-of-control.
So, what exactly are the big issues that led to the strike? The Chicago Teachers Union claims that “it’s not about money” but about using standardized tests to measure an individual teacher’s performance. The other major complaint is that principals have been filling vacant teaching positions with newer, better-qualified teachers, rather than teachers who had recently been laid off due to school closings. Considering that the teachers are demanding greater job security (i.e., tenure) at a time when many Americans are unemployed or lack job security, this argument has been met with public criticism rather than sympathy.2 This sudden shift in the union’s focus is more likely a response to public backlash. As Michael J. Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute told the SFGate, “Let’s be honest. It’s still about the money.”
At odds with the concept of teachers’ job security is the nation’s issue with giving children equal access to quality education, especially children in low-income neighborhoods. Mandating schools to hire these teachers in place of better applicants may harm the quality of education. Conversely, there is also the chance that the experienced teachers are better qualified but that the principles have been discriminating against these teachers in favor of new applicants who will not be paid as much to perform the same job. If this is the case, then some form of job security may be necessary to prevent the quality of education from deteriorating. However, a strike is an irresponsible way to achieve this goal because of the direct impact this has had on the students and their families.
I can certainly understand why teachers do not want to be evaluated by how their students score on standardized tests. After all, there are many factors beyond a teacher’s control that can result in poor test scores, such as abuse, neglect, lack of parental involvement, exposure to neighborhood crime, poverty, medical problems, mental health problems, poor study habits, hunger, and etc. Considering these factors, I can see how good teachers would be unfairly evaluated, especially those working in low-income areas. Moreover, good teachers do not get the respect they deserve or a salary that accurately reflects the immense effort that goes into teaching. However, this is an issue that can and should be resolved without harming the children’s education or access to meals, or forcing parents to find last-minute child care.
The point is that teachers and schools are caretakers. By irresponsibly deciding to strike aftersummer vacation, rather than using the summer to resolve the issues, the teachers have neglected their caretaking responsibility. Moreover, some news sources have alleged that the prolonged strike is the result of personality differences between the union leader Karen Lewis and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The district has attempted to compromise with the union, but the union has not responded to the district’s current offer as of Wednesday afternoon. Conversely, Lewis has claimed, “It’s going to take time to work things out. It’s also going to take the will to make compromises. We have made quite a few. We would like to see more on their side.” However, Lewis has not explained what compromises the union has made. According to David Vitale, the President of the school board, the district changed its offer 20 times and has had difficulty finding additional solutions, given the district’s strained budget. The District allegedly offered a 16% pay raise over four years, as well as a plan for rehiring teachers who were laid off during school closings. It appears that the union has taken an all-or-nothing approach, which will likely cause more harm than good.
So, why did this strike get so out of control? I suspect this has more to do with personal animosity between Lewis and Emanuel, and the union’s refusal to accept that they are going to have to compromise on behalf of the students’ interests.
2 See The Huffington Post, “A Former Teacher’s View of the CPS Teachers Strike,” for a counter argument. See also CNN, “My View: A parent’s take on the CPS teachers strike,” and The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago teachers strike: Mom’s long view of city’s work stoppages.