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Aaron Regunberg: Providence Can Learn from Chicago Teachers Strike

Friday, September 21, 2012


This week, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted to end their seven-day strike after reaching a contract deal that is fairer to teachers and better for students. CTU won a number of changes, including:

  • More funding for electives; CPS had originally proposed no funding for additional staff, but CTU won funding for over 600 new positions, mostly for arts, music, and physical education.
  • Fairer evaluations; the School Department (CPS) had wanted the majority of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on standardized test scores (a policy that I, and the majority of the education community, believe to be incredibly narrowing and ineffective), but now 70 percent of a teacher’s quality rating will be based on their practice and 30 percent on test scores.
  • More money for school supplies; originally CPS was only offering $100 for supplies per teacher, but now that will be raised to $250, and for the first time in CPS history there will be guaranteed textbook distribution on the first day of classes.
  • More mayoral accountability; the original contract lasted five years, but the new one lasts three, so Mayor Emanuel will have another negotiation before his second term so the community can hold him accountable.


The new contract was a real compromise that included concessions from both parties. And there is only so much a contract can accomplish, anyways. For example, it can’t do anything about one of the biggest issues angering both teachers and the Chicago public that overwhelmingly supported them—the increasingly widespread school closures and privatization drive that has ramped up under Mayor Emanuel. But in an era so dominated by rightwing education policies, CTU’s bold stand strikes me as one of the most successful attempts to fight back against corporate education reform that we’ve seen to date, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on what we can learn from these historic events.

To start off, the clearest lesson that I draw from the CTU strike is this: if teachers unions want to be successful in what I believe to be their long-term goals of protecting public education and providing teachers with the security and autonomy they need to practice their profession, they have to do a better job of engaging the parents that their members serve. To me, that means two things—first, they have to begin really prioritizing the priorities of parents (which far more often than not line up with the priorities of teachers), and second, they have to begin investing heavily in parent outreach and parent organizing.

The Chicago Teachers Union was successful in their recent campaign largely because of all the work they did on both these fronts. Upon winning the leadership of CTU in 2010, Karen Lewis and her Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) slate turned the focus of the union towards standing up for many of the biggest issues concerning Chicago parents. They began actively fighting for smaller class sizes, for less drill-and-kill standardized testing, and to stop CPS’s community-damaging policy of mass school closures. In other words, they began standing up for students and against the corporate education reform mindset that had taken over CPS in ways that parents could see, understand, and appreciate

Just as crucially, CTU began engaging in a vigorous parent outreach campaign. For months and months prior to the strike, CTU organizing committees have been taking root in hundreds of schools, ensuring teachers were showing up at school council meetings, parent nights, and principal-organized parent meetings to explain CTU’s positions and engage in dialogue with parents about their own concerns. When parents expressed their shared outrage over issues, these teacher activists went a step further and helped organize them, showing them how parents and teachers can work together to more effectively fight for better schools.

And guess what—all that work and outreach and relationship-building and real, student-centered advocacy paid off. Because when Chicago teachers made the decision to risk it all and go on strike for a better contract, they walked the picket line with the broad-based support of a strong majority of the Chicago public. A poll by We Ask America of 1,344 voting Chicago households found that 55.5 percent of Chicago residents approved of the Chicago Teachers Union’s decision to go on strike, compared to 40 percent who disapproved. Support was more robust among Chicagoans of color, with 63 percent of African Americans and 65 percent of Latinos expressing approval. Among parents of public school children, CTU support was even higher, with an astounding 66 percent approval versus just 31 percent disapproval. And when respondents were asked who they thought was most to blame for the strike, most said management (34 percent blamed Mayor Emanuel and 19 percent blamed the School Board) while just 29 percent blamed CTU.

That’s why parents were willing to make sacrifices to accommodate their children for the week and a half that schools were closed. It’s why so many parents joined the protests themselves. And—make no mistake—it’s why Mayor Emanuel felt compelled to make actual concessions in the contract negotiations, and ultimately why CTU was able to come out of this process as successfully as they did.

So now we come to the lesson. Here in Providence, the idea of widespread public and parental support for the teachers union is not an intuitive concept for most people, and that should give the leadership of the Providence Teachers Union a cause to sit down and do some real soul-searching. If PTU were to go on strike tomorrow, how many parents would support them? My bet would be very few. But clearly that’s not how it has to be.

PTU leadership needs to learn from the success of CTU and immediately engage in two major organizational shifts. First, they need to take CTU’s lead in fighting for the broader educational changes that teachers, parents and students all care about—issues like smaller class sizes, less standardized testing and curriculum narrowing, more support services and electives, and no more school closings (for a good example of what PTU could be fighting for, check out this awesome report CTU put together called “ The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve”). And second, they need to redirect a large portion of their not insignificant resources towards doing real, on-the-ground parental engagement. Communicating with parents, making phone calls, going door-to-door, sparking dialogue and bringing families into the conversation—this is work that PTU is uniquely well-situated to be doing and that is very much in PTU’s long-term interests to be doing. Though I’m not very hopeful we’ll see a sea change overnight, I hope for all our sakes they take the hint.

This piece is getting on the long side, so I’ll mention my second major reflection in brief. If there’s anything the management side of the equation should learn from the Chicago strike, it’s this: teachers need to be welcomed into the process of school transformation. Teachers are the ones who we call on to actually implement school reforms, so they need buy-in on those reforms. They need a say. They need to be treated like the professionals they are, and not disparaged and belittled the way Rahm Emanuel has made a point of disparaging and belittling his city’s teachers. If CTU’s stand has accomplished anything, hopefully it has given evidence of this lesson. In the words of CTU President Karen Lewis, "We are trying to have people understand that when people come together to deal with problems of education, the people that are actually working in schools need to be heard. And I think this has been an opportunity for people across the nation to have their voice heard." I think it has, as well.


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