Chicago Teachers Strike—A Struggle for Equity in Urban Education in Trump’s America



From a member of the Revolution Club, Chicago:

What Is Happening?

At a time when the fascist Trump/Pence regime is lashing out at oppressed people, stoking white supremacist hatred, caging immigrant kids and attacking public education itself—on Thursday, October 17, more than 32,000 teachers and support staff shut down the country’s third-largest school system—the Chicago Public Schools. Two unions are involved—the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) representing teachers and some support staff, and Service Employees International Local 73, representing the rest of the support staff. The teachers had been working without a contract for 10 months and 94 percent voted to authorize the strike.

Driving around the city in the early morning, one is greeted by groups of strikers, often dancing on the sidewalks in front of their schools with music blaring and greeted by honking horns from people driving by. They have held marches of thousands through downtown and smaller marches in neighborhoods across the city. Students have often rallied with them in support. They are now doing civil disobedience training to step up their fight with the Democratic administration of Chicago’s newly elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The Chicago public schools serve over 350,000 students, 76.6 percent of whom are considered economically disadvantaged. In a city that is about one-third white, one-third Black, and one-third Latino, the breakdown in the schools is 37 percent Black, 47 percent Hispanic, four percent Asian, and 11 percent white. Many parents who can afford it send their kids to private schools. Schools are graded by their performance levels and the low-performing schools are concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods.

The conditions in Chicago’s schools are testament to the oppression of Black and Brown people in the inner cities and contrast starkly with the conditions in the nearby, wealthy and mostly white suburbs. Most Chicago schools are incredibly racially segregated. A headline in Chicago magazine in 2012 said: “Chicagoland Schools: For Blacks, the Most Segregated in the Country.” Not much has changed in the ensuing seven years. Many South Side and West Side elementary schools are over 90 percent Black. Many schools lack basic supplies, desks, books, toilet paper. A teacher told the press he had difficulty finding enough chairs for his students.

While wages and benefits are part of what is being negotiated (including for low-paid mainly Black and Brown female paraprofessionals, two-thirds of whom are so low-paid their kids qualify for free or reduced fee lunches under federal poverty guidelines), wages and benefits are not at the heart of what the teachers and staff are fighting about.

One of their key demands centers on staffing. One staffing demand is “a nurse in every school.” One striker’s sign said, “An Ice Pack Is Not a Nurse.” A pre-K assistant talked about how running to the lunchroom for ice was a constant task when kids really needed to see a nurse. Right now one school nurse is assigned to five schools. In contrast, many schools in surrounding suburbs have a full-time nurse, often with their own medical office. Another staffing demand is for librarians. Barely one of five schools has a librarian, and the shortages are most severe in the predominantly Black and Latino schools on the South and West sides. Some inner-city schools have a fully stocked library that remains locked up for lack of a librarian. More school counselors and social workers is another demand. A staffer at an impoverished South Side elementary school told a reporter that kids at her school come in suffering from trauma and violence and “they have to wait days or weeks to see a social worker.”

Another important demand is caps on class size. A teacher told us that at her school, there is a pre-K class of 40 kids with one teacher and no assistant. By law there is supposed to be one adult for every 10 kids in preschool. Another carried a sign in a downtown protest saying: “Chika Chika Boom, 40 kids in One Room.”

There is broad awareness among the strikers that their fight is about Black and Brown inner-city kids being treated as lesser beings than their suburban counterparts. Many strikers see this as a struggle for justice. There are also demands for sanctuary schools for the undocumented and more services for homeless students and kids traumatized by witnessing young family members and friends shot and killed on the Chicago streets.

Why Is This Happening?

In 1991, Jonathon Kozol wrote a book about urban public education called Savage Inequalities that exposed the incredible inequities and stark racial segregation in the public schools of the inner cities in contrast with those of the suburbs. Little has changed in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs in the 28 years since Kozol wrote that book.

Schools are in part funded by property taxes and this means that, for example, in the wealthy suburb of Winnetka where New Trier High School (considered one of the top schools in the nation) is located, $22,000 is spent per student and available classes include applied arts, art, global studies, modern and classical languages, music and theater, speech and debate, and much more. In the Chicago inner city, $15,000 is spent per student. New Trier High School has 10 librarians. Many Chicago schools have none.

There are also stark inequities within the Chicago school system based upon race. One study found that two predominantly Black high schools offered eight and 18 math and science courses, respectively, while the much more integrated Lincoln Park High School, which has a magnet program, had 35. Chicago has four top “selective enrollment high schools” that are among some of the nation’s top-ranked schools. Together their racial make-up is 35 percent white, 22 percent Latino, 18 percent African-American, and 17 percent Asian.

Another issue fueling this fight is the fact that, despite massive popular outpourings of protest from parents, students, and teachers, in 2013 former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, facing a $1 billion budget deficit, closed 50 schools, almost all of them concentrated in the neighborhoods of the oppressed on the South and West sides. These schools often served as part of the heart of their communities, and since these closures the neighborhoods have become even more devastated. Black people have been leaving the city in droves since this happened. School enrollment has dropped by 42,147 since the closures. A 2018 article, “Thousands of African-Americans Are Leaving Chicago Each Year. Why?” called this a reverse Great Migration. More than 220,000 Black residents have left Chicago since 2000.

Where Do the Interests of Humanity Lie?

There is no way under this system of capitalism-imperialism that truly quality education for all will happen. Most of the striking teachers are well intentioned and truly care about the kids. But they are trapped within a system that increasingly forces them to “teach to the test,” police their students, and enforce what truly is a school-to-prison pipeline. And if the Trump/Pence regime fully consolidates its fascist rule, the horrors to come can only be imagined. These schools are filled with people Trump has called “vermin,” exactly what Hitler called the Jews.

The Revolution Club and members of Refuse Fascism have been out among the strikers. We have been calling on them to join the #OUTNOW movement and be in the streets with Refuse Fascism on October 26. There is a profound hatred for Trump but also a lot of underestimating how urgent the situation is. Many are well aware that public education is under attack and know that education secretary Betsy DeVos is a real danger. At the same time, we have had to struggle hard with some who argue we can “wait until 2020.” Thousands of flyers have gone out among the strikers and one indication that the 26th is becoming known is that by Wednesday, many told us they already had the flyers. While quite a few said they would be there it is unclear how solid that commitment is.

Revolution Club members have also been promoting the slogan “This System Has No Future for the Youth, the Revolution Does” and have been getting out the BEB and 5/2/6 broadsheets. Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have come to Chicago to “support the teachers”—further roping them into the BEB. The Club is summing up that we need to step up our work to take out the revolution, do more promotion of the BEB broadsheets, and, very importantly, we need to make use of the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America among the striking teachers. The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America shows what will be possible once education is freed from the constraints of capitalist imperialist production and social relations.

Bob Avakian, "Imagine education, science and culture in a new society"

Chicago teachers and supporters. Photo: AP





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