By Betsy L. Angert
The Chicago Teachers Union strike, and the recent rallies held in conjunction, speak to a problem larger than the conventional meme of pay increases, tenure, or pensions. Chicago Teachers want better working conditions. They realize as no other employees might; the environments in which they work fashion the future of our nation. Our children’s education is at-risk.
Twenty-five years have passed since Chicago Teachers Union members have gone out on strike. These Educators realize as do all workers ¬Unions today are not the powerhouses of yesteryear. According to a study by Sociologist Jake Rosenfeld, unionization among private-sector full-time employees fell by 40% between 1984 and 2002. Indeed, as cited in Unions, Norms, and the Rise in American Wage Inequality, “From 1973 to 2007, private sector union membership in the United States declined from 34 to 8 percent for men and from 16 to 6 percent among women. Inequality in hourly wages increased by over 40 percent in this period.”
The reasons are stark.
Beginning in 1938, the Supreme Court ruled that while workers could not be fired for striking, laborers could be “permanently replaced.” (National Labor Relations Board v. Mackay Radio and Telegraph 304 U.S. 333) For decades, the threat was understood. In reality, however, until more recently, employers respected the rights of those in established unions.
Almost abruptly, in 1981 attitudes and actions changed. President Ronald Reagan, without hesitation, fired striking Air-traffic controllers. “Workers” were summarily dismissed from their jobs for taking a stance, asking for improved working conditions.” The swift disciplinary response set a tone. Decades of conservative Court and National Labor Relations Board decisions empowered elected officials and employers. Each of these quickly adopted policies that allowed for aggressive attacks on union workers. Today, Democratic Mayors and Republican Governors routinely exercise this power.
The situation in Chicago reminds us of our history and reveals the effects. Weakened by a climate of intolerance union memberships decline. A less unionized labor force led to an increase in inequity across the American landscape. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our local neighborhoods and in turn, in our schools. The wealthy and high-wage earners live in affluent enclaves. Their children attend higher quality schools. The middle-class, whose wages have decreased with the decline of unions, do the best that they can to provide a quality for their progeny. The poor, well, they are left behind.
Communities and education are now stratified. There are layers.
The first stratum sits on the surface. Any visitor to a Chicago public school can see what the Teachers do.
• Children are stuffed into over-crowded classrooms. Studies verify that smaller class sizes, especially in the early grades, are necessary for student achievement. It is well documented that large class sizes hinder a child’s ability to learn. Smaller classes have proven to narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor children.
Despite this research, class sizes in Chicago – under Democratic mayors – have increased steadily over the past two decades. Kelly Farrell, a kindergarten teacher at Higgins Elementary on the city’s South Side, spoke to a New York Times reporter. Ms Farrell said her classroom does not have enough chairs to seat all her students. “They are 5 years old,” she said. “They want their teacher’s attention, and there is one of me and 43 of them.”
• Crumbling plaster and paint, lack of climate control conditions within the classroom do not foster learning. A dearth of air-conditioners exacerbates the situation. This is true particularly in the poor black and brown neighborhoods on the South and West sides of Chicago. Conditions necessary for learning are far from ideal. In reality, few of us learn well when we are placed in precarious places or positions.
Let us look beneath the surface; let us examine what exists behind the crowded and crumbling facades that are our city schools. Peer into the eyes of our children. Lift that veil behind their shiny eyes. Look at the numbers that do not appear in a superficial examination.
• Preparedness. In communities such as the city of Chicago, students, through no fault of their own, come to class less than fully prepared for learning.
More so than in the past, parents’ earnings have not kept pace with price increases. Moms and Dads struggle to put bacon on the table or food in a child’s belly. Safety too is sacrificed. Rents in comfortable communities are high. All that contributes to physical sense of well-being is costly. These are the sorts of things that a casual observer cannot see from the street or when sitting in an office assessing schools and their test scores.
• One third of Chicago’s children live in poverty. Eighty plus per cent of students in the Chicago school system qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The determination is made based on family income, and offers a glimpse into the measure of poverty within a household.
• In Chicago, 32 per cent of the homeless population, are children. Unaccompanied youth, without a home, account for 7.3%.
These are our children. The providence and problem with Chicago’s schools, like public schools in urban areas all throughout this country, is the same, enrollees. Students are a blessing; each is innately eager to learn. Mentally every child comes prepared for education. Indeed, from birth we all crave knowledge. We look. Listen. Think and Learn; our surroundings, parents, people teach us.
Teachers understand this; supposedly the public school system does as well. We, as a people want to provide our progeny with The Schools Students Deserve. Unlike the conventions common among Charter Schools, public schools turn no one away. Chicago students, however, and those in other cities, suffer from the predictable and hidden hindrance, poverty. Innumerable children live in homes where there is no place to study. More lack parental support for studying at home. Tax cuts left our children behind. The dollars needed to employ a satisfactory staff and resources have been reduced greatly over the last two scores.
• Today Inequity is the issue! About 42 percent of the city’s 400,000 public school students are black and 87 percent are low-income, according to district figures.
Children living in impoverished community’s’, such as the city of Chicago, are inadequately served. The Department of Education cites arts and music programs as being “particularly beneficial for students from economically disadvantaged circumstances and those who are at risk.” Only forty-two percent of Chicago’s elementary schools have the needed resources to support an arts education.
• Chicago schools also lack sufficient financial support for physical education. Equipment is an after thought. In 2011, only 13 percent of Middle School Principals reported having facilities for their students. Tests? Schools have these. Examination materials are abundant. The Chicago Public Schools administrators and the Mayor have decidedly shown that there are funds for test publisher, but not for pupils. The wherewithal needed to provide a quality education. Is not forthcoming.
If the Chicago Teachers strike speaks to money, that money can be characterized as our invisible strata, an authentic investment in education.
The teachers ask; will we truly serve our youth, fund our schools, and endow education. Will we as a society reach for the skies or will the people serve themselves with tax cuts and enrollments in selective Charter Schools? Will communities, such as Chicago, serve the young or budgetary needs? Educators have chosen. A career in education offers little in the way of big bucks. What is rewarding is the gratitude seen on a child’s face when he or she grasps a bit of information that earlier seemed too complex. When a learner exclaims with glee, “Now I get it!” a Teachers heart is filled.
An Educator’s wages, while meager in contrast to the salaries garnered by the corporate elite, are not what moves the Chicago Teachers to strike. Disparity for their students is the primary concern. Teachers know that what they do daily in their classrooms and on the picket line makes a difference. Teachers care. Teachers reach the minds of avid learners. Teachers teach.
Reference and Resources…
- Illinois District Report Card State of Illinois.
- Are We Asking Too Much From Our Teachers? By Alex Kotlowitz. The New York Times. September 14, 2012
- The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve. Research-based Proposals To Strengthen Elementary And Secondary Education In The Chicago Public Schools. The Chicago Teachers Union February 2012
- Chicago Public School Teachers Highlight Perennial Debate of Teacher Salaries, By Susanna Kim. ABC News. September 11, 2012
- “Unions, Norms, and the Rise in American Wage Inequality,” by Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld. Harvard University. March 2011
- Inadequate State Aid To Public Schools Causing Low Graduation Rates And Rising Property Taxes. The Alliance for Quality Education (AQE)
- America would be better off with more strikes. Cable News Network. September 10, 2012
- Union Membership Trends in the United States. Congressional Research Services. August 31, 2004
- Strike Against Inequality. By Christie Thompson. The Nation. September 14, 2012 – 3:55 PM ET
- Teachers’ Strike in Chicago Tests Mayor and Union, By Monica Davey with contributions from Motoko Rich, Steven Yaccino and Idalmy Carrera, Steven Brownhouse, Jack Begg and Colin Moynihan, and Peter Baker. The New York Times. September 10, 2012
copyright © 2012 Betsy L. Angert. BeThink.org
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Great article. These are all age old issues.
Betsy, thanks for linking to our stats on Youth Homelessness! We also have information on our educational programs at: http://www.mercyhome.org/education.
Mercy Home for Boys & Girls