Parents, Teachers Hold Forum to Outline What’s at Stake as CPS Strike Looms: ‘They Want to Create New Orleans in Chicago’

By Patty Wetli | Thursday, August 23, 2012

Jackson Potter, CTU, outlines contract issues. Credit: Patty Wetli

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and CPS board were expected back at the bargaining table today as the prospect of the first teachers strike in 25 years grows increasingly likely. At a standing-room-only forum held Tuesday night at Old Town’s Szold Hall, 4545 N. Lincoln Ave., representatives from CTU detailed the issues that have brought the union to the brink of a walkout, with parents offering support for the educators.

The event was sponsored by Parents 4 Teachers (P4T), a North Side-based community organization aimed at building an alliance between parents and teachers.

“We were just really fed up with the abuse teachers were taking,” said CPS parent and P4T member Erica Clark, a panelist at the forum. “You’d think the current contract battle is only about money. It’s about more than money from teachers’ point of view. They’re fighting for the things our kids really need in the classroom.”

Jackson Potter, staff coordinator for CTU, broke down the union’s sticking points, which many in the public had assumed were limited to the longer school day:

  • Class size: CTU wants its contract to include limits on class size, something that 32 states (Illinois not among them) require by law. “They’ve refused to discuss it,” said Potter. Chicago magazine’s recent ranking of the “best” public schools in Chicago and its suburbs highlighted the discrepancy in class size: the city’s top elementary schools ranged from 23.3 students to 34 per class; in Cook, DuPage and Lake County, the range was 9.8 to 18. “President Obama came out yesterday to say class size matters,” said Potter. “You’ve got to make it stick.”
  • Support services: According to Potter, 94 percent of CPS schools lack a full-time social worker; most schools operate without a full-time school nurse. The National Association of School Nurses recommends at least one registered nurse for every 125-775 students, depending on the student population’s health issues; the School Social Work Association of America recommends one social worker per 400 students. Lane Tech, with an enrollment of more than 4,000 students, has one full-time nurse and one social worker.
  • Diversion of resources to charter schools: “They want to create New Orleans in Chicago,” said Potter, citing the Board’s plans to create 250 new charter schools — half of CPS’ system — within the next five to 10 years. “They have more of an ideological commitment to privatization than a moral commitment to children.” The latest CPS budget would shift more than $70 million to charters, while cutting facilities’ expenditures to existing schools by 85 percent, according to Potter, who added that 160 schools operate without a library and half the system has no air conditioning. “They give these charters brick-and-mortar resources. Parents see a new building, new facilities, new technology. It’s not about choice. The public schools are being squeezed and deprived of resources.” He cited a recent point of contention between CTU and the Board over textbooks: “We argued with the Board over why it was important to have textbooks on Day One.”

Szold Hall at the Old Town School of Folk Music was packed for Tuesday night's forum. Credit: Patty Wetli

“It’s not just a battle for a contract, but a battle for what we want our vision of education to be,” said Clark. “If the teachers don’t come out in some way successful…unless the union can come out this stronger…I really feel it will be open season on our public schools.”

Frustration among educators was palpable. “I haven’t had a single conversation with my fellow teachers about compensation,” said Nora Wiltse, a CTU delegate and librarian at Coonley Elementary. Having also taught at schools in Pilsen and Englewood, Wiltse worries instead about class size, test-driven curriculum and the lack of equality among Chicago’s schools.

“Now I’m able to teach technology skills and research. Our amazing parent group funded iPads, we have great current non-fiction texts,” she said. “In my Englewood school, I didn’t have any technology.” Though grateful for the support of Coonley’s active and generous parents, she added, “It’s great that they can fill that gap, but should they need to?”

Her fellow librarian, Ravenswood resident Leslie Westerberg, teaches at Burroughs Elementary at 35th Street and Washtenaw. Students have art once a week, and no music or computer class. “We have computers in our library now because that’s where we do testing,” she said. “At least 12 weeks last year my library wasn’t open because of testing.”

Albany Park resident Melissa Sterne is the parent of two CPS students, one in fourth grade and one in sixth. “I absolutely support the teachers, I support the union,” she said. But she did raise a concern over the challenge parents will face if teachers strike. “What is the plan in the case of a strike for parents and 400,000 children?” she asked.

Nora Wiltse, librarian at Coonley Elementary, argues for smaller class size and equitable resources. Credit: Patty Wetli

Potter responded that CTU is working with allies and community organizations, social service agencies and churches to provide alternate care for students. (Not to be outdone, the Board announced a $25 million emergency fund for just such a contingency.) “Predominantly, we have to make it known you can’t run the schools without us,” said Potter, which should provide incentive for all parties to resolve a strike quickly should one occur.

Unions and school boards in other cities will be paying close attention to the outcome in Chicago. “This is a strategic battle. Every city in the country is facing the same issues. What happens in Chicago is going to affect people across the country,” said Pauline Lipman, a member of Teachers for Social Justice and a professor at UIC. “What [Mayor] Rahm [Emanuel] and the Board are counting on is splitting parents from teachers.”

P4T proposed mobilizing parents to exert pressure on the Board to negotiate on issues that matter in the classroom. Action ideas include “Thursday call-ins”: beginning Aug. 30, for three successive weeks, P4T encourages members of the community to flood the office of CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard with phone calls. A non-binding referendum will be on the ballot this fall in more than 200 precincts calling for an elected school board. “The point is to show that Chicagoans want an elected school board,” said P4T member Howie Emmer. Joining CTU informational pickets or hosting an educational meeting for families and neighbors were other P4T suggestions.

Said Clark, “We have to show the mayor it would be political suicide…if he doesn’t do the right thing for our kids and our teachers.”

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