Chicago teachers went on strike to do right by kids, but we’re not done fighting yet

Chicagoans must have the right to elect their school board. Teachers must have the right to bargain on staffing and class size.

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Students put their coats in their lockers on the first day back to class at Mason Elementary School after the Chicago teachers strike. Teachers ratified the contract last week.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Chicago Teachers Union members last week voted overwhelmingly to ratify their contract with Chicago Public Schools, following an 11-day strike grounded in the struggle for equity and educational justice.

While a linchpin in our bargaining was the demand to lift our paraprofessionals out of poverty, this was not a strike solely about wages and benefits. We returned to our school communities with the same pay increase that was on the table before our strike.

We fought, instead, to shift CPS policy away from a relentless agenda of austerity and privatization toward real student needs, and, by extension, the needs of the neighborhoods our school communities anchor. We fought for the common good of students, and CPS must now — for the first time in decades — invest in the bare minimum: a nurse in every school every day; social workers and counselors; and manageable class sizes, especially in schools with urgent needs.

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These minimums are critical for CPS’ overwhelmingly low-income black and Latino students and their families. Our strike forced CPS to invest hundreds of millions of additional dollars into schools, an investment that will yield returns for Chicago for years to come.

Our city faces an existential crisis. The City of Big Shoulders is, increasingly, shouldering out the working class people who are the backbone of our richly diverse neighborhoods. Public investment prioritizes tax breaks and tax-increment financing subsidies for wealthy corporations, rather than real economic development that benefits the residents of lower-income neighborhoods. Meanwhile, City Hall has failed to address a critical and growing shortage of affordable housing.

These distorted policies compound years of austerity in public schools and escalate a massive hemorrhaging of families — particularly black families — from our city, an exodus that hurts our city’s public revenue stream, vibrancy and its very sustainability.

Families care deeply about their children’s schools. Better-resourced schools give families a powerful incentive to stay in Chicago. Educators also care deeply about their school communities. Better working and learning conditions allow CPS to do a better job of attracting and retaining experienced teachers and support staff.

Our goal in negotiations was to benefit every student and embed those better conditions in writing, in an enforceable contract. Kindergarteners will no longer be forced into classes of 40 or more. Every school will have a school nurse, every day. Children who must cope with poverty and trauma will have a social worker to talk to. Schools can begin to rebuild devastated special education services for our most vulnerable students. CPS will not be allowed to dismantle 20 sustainable community schools, where shared leadership among students, parents, educators and community groups support those schools’ ability to truly serve the surrounding neighborhood.

There is, however, much more to do. We must reverse the most harmful elements of “education reform” in Chicago, from the wildly inequitable practice of student-based budgeting to the racist school ranking system. We must end competition schemes that hurt students by driving a lethal cycle of defunding and displacement from neighborhood schools while charter operators profit. These destructive measures emerged during decades of mayoral control — control that has undermined accountability, transparency and responsible education policy, and forced our union to strike to simply win what children should already have.

Under City Hall rule, CPS bureaucrats have pursued the costly privatization of information management, nursing and custodial services, undermining neighborhood schools and putting the district’s finances in peril. CEOs have cut special education services instead of stewarding their growth, admitted to starving schools of money before closing them, resigned for ethics violations, and gone to prison for steering CPS business to former employers.

Those mayoral operatives are gone, but the policies they pushed persist. To finally put an end to them, Chicagoans must have the same right that every other voter in the state has: the right to elect a representative school board. And CPS educators must have the same rights as every other educator in the state: to bargain on critical issues like staffing and class size.

We aim to change those policies. Our students, our families and our city’s future depend on it.

Jesse Sharkey is president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

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