Teaching Profession Opinion

Chicago Teacher Strike Over, But Bigger Problems Persist

By Marilyn Rhames — September 19, 2012 3 min read
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I would be hard pressed to find someone in Chicago who isn’t relieved that the teacher strike ended on Tuesday night. After months of contentious negotiations and a seven-day walk-out, the spirit of old fashioned compromise finally set in. The Chicago Public Schools got a few reforms it wanted and the Chicago Teachers Union got a few policies it championed.

Still, the process was hard for kids to comprehend, like watching angry parents fight. What happens when the fight’s over? Even after the mom and dad have kissed and made up, the memory of the trauma and disruption often remains in the psyche of the children—for weeks, months, if not years. Was the fight my fault? Am I safe here? What if it happens again?

Students have essentially asked me two questions: Is our mayor Rahm Emanuel really a bully, a liar, and a rat—as illustrated in the huge blow up balloon stationed at the downtown street protests? Is the union president Karen Lewis really more concerned about money than the 350,000 students who were barred from learning in our schools?

Words matter. Words never die. Two hundred years from now they will be resonating from a dusty library file or echoing from somebody’s old iCloud account. Sometimes quotes are recalled from the least suspecting—children who seem so unaware, yet they are always watching, always listening, always learning.

Last night, one local news pundit likened the strike to a clash of Muhammad Ali (Emanuel) and Joe Frazier (Lewis). Other commentators predicted the long-term effects of the strike in terms of “collateral damage” and “toxic waste” clean-up.

When I first met CPS chief Jean-Claude Brizard in August 2011, a couple of months after he took the job, he acknowledged that his sweeping new reform agenda would be “messy.” I wonder if he had imaged it would eventually become likened to hazardous waste. Though many feared a strike would happen, the level of toxicity surrounding education reform took most of us by surprise.

My hopes and dreams for public education in Chicago are that of unity, peace and productivity. Though I am a charter school teacher and vehemently opposed the strike, I respect district teachers as colleagues—some are good friends.

The real test for teachers, union leaders and district administrators was not the strike: It’s can we move on from it and face even bigger challenges in the spirit of healing?

The strike is over. Accept the fact that no one won. Hurtful things were said and feelings were hurt. It divided our city. Working parents were stressed out. Many children were confused and frustrated. Despite the tension, we now have an amicable agreement that is expected to be approved by the entire union membership in two weeks.

But we are also looking at dire fiscal realities (start video at 4:50). The district expects a $1 billion budget deficit next year. The district is also obligated to make a $338 million past due payment into the teachers’ pension fund in 2014. School Board President David Vitale said that more than 100,000 empty student seats are scattered throughout the system of 675 schools. The system needs to be “right sized,” he said this week. Everyone knows the complex, emotional task of closing and consolidating schools is inevitable, and with it brings massive teacher layoffs. Balancing the budget will be extremely painful for all parties involved—much worse than the strike.

It’s time to stop posturing. It’s time to make an honest attempt at rebuilding trust. The strike is over, but bigger problems persist. We have to work together to find smart solutions to stabilize public education in Chicago—and in our nation.

And let’s keep personal attacks out of it. After all, our children are watching.

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