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Beating the Neoliberal Blame Game: Teacher and Parent Solidarity and the 2012 Chicago Teachers’ Strike

Teacher and Parent Solidarity and the 2012 Chicago Teachers' Strike

Rhoda Rae Gutierrez is a parent of two Chicago Public School students and a parent-activist with Parents 4 Teachers. She is also currently a graduate student in Educational Policy Studies-Social Foundations at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

It was Monday afternoon on the first day of the historic Chicago teachers’ strike. The streets surrounding the downtown headquarters of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) were quickly filling up. Red-shirted teachers, paraprofessionals, students, parents, and community groups arrived in waves smiling, hugging, and chanting, some arm-in-arm, while others held up the now-familiar Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) signs that read, “On Strike, for Better Schools,” as well as witty homemade posters such as, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

This was the first massive demonstration of the strike. I arrived downtown a little early to meet other parents eager to show support for the incoming teachers and school workers. We certainly were not alone. Numerous parents, students, and community members turned out to stand with more than 26,000 teachers and paraprofessionals (many of whom are also parents of CPS students) who were taking a courageous stand not only for their dignity and rights, but also for a just and equitable education for their students. My sign was hastily made that morning on the sidewalk in front of my children’s school where my family and I picketed with our teachers. All it said was “Parents Support Teachers,” but the reaction from incoming strikers to this simple show of solidarity was incredible. Many shouted, “Thank you parents,” “that means so much to us,” and “way to go parents.” Others snapped pictures, clapped, or held their fists in the air.

Soon the streets were jam-packed, overflowing with red as thousands of people continued to march toward CPS headquarters. It was at this point that I felt the power of this historic moment. Chicago teachers and paraprofessionals in solidarity with communities across the city were posing one of the most formidable challenges to neoliberal education policies that are privatizing public education, undermining the teaching profession, intensifying racial and economic inequities across the district, and dehumanizing the children in our public schools. These damaging policies have gained traction in part because of the neoliberal blame game in education, where corporate and political elites are writing the rules and faulting teachers and parents for the complex problems facing public schools. The power of solidarity exemplified in the Chicago Teachers Union strike has changed the rules in this neoliberal blame game.

The Neoliberal Blame Game

To better understand how the neoliberal blame game in education works, we need to know who is doing the blaming, who is getting blamed, and why.

Speaking to an audience of two hundred business and political leaders on the day CTU delegates voted to suspend its seven-day strike, Bruce Rauner, wealthy venture capitalist and close advisor to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, issued a scathing critique of the union and revealed his interest in splitting what he called “good teachers” from the union’s ranks. He claimed, “It’s the weak teachers. It’s the lousy, ineffective, lazy teachers that—unfortunately there are a number of those—they’re the ones that the union is protecting and that’s where there’s a conflict of interest between the good teachers and the union bosses.”1 Rauner has been a leading advocate for corporate education reforms and education privatization. He has called for increasing the number of charter schools and private education management organizations, tying teacher performance to student standardized test scores, and bringing in more temporary teachers from Teach for America.2 Rauner’s contempt for the teachers’ union and public-sector unions in general led him to bring to Illinois the conservative education reform group Stand for Children.

Stand for Children has had a successful track record in getting states to pass laws curbing teachers’ rights and expanding education privatization.3 The organization raised millions of dollars from conservative foundations that support privatization and corporate education reforms, including the Walton and Gates Foundations. When Stand for Children came to Illinois, it also amassed a treasure chest from local corporate elites, worked closely with another conservative reform group Advance Illinois, and took advantage of a rift between the powerful Speaker of the House Michael Madigan and the Illinois Federation of Teachers over pension reform to get Senate Bill 7 passed in the Illinois legislature in 2011. This legislation undermines teacher job security, puts greater restrictions on collective bargaining, and raises the bar for teachers to strike. During a forum at the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival in the summer of 2011, CEO Jonah Edelman bragged about Stand for Children’s role in undermining the Chicago Teachers Union’s power under SB7: “We knew that the highest threshold for any bargaining unit that had voted one way or another on a collective bargaining agreement, on a contract vote was 48.3%. The threshold that we were arguing for was three quarters. So in effect, they wouldn’t have the ability to strike.”4

Throughout the teachers’ strike, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), under the name Education Reform Now, ran anti-union television advertisements5 and radio spots produced by a public-relations firm with ties to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.6 In multiple states, DFER has successfully advocated for charter school expansion, school turnarounds, teacher merit pay, and parent trigger laws.7 The group also worked in collaboration with Stand for Children and Advance Illinois to pass SB7.8 Like Stand for Children, DFER receives support from corporate elites; it was founded and bankrolled by Wall Street hedge-fund operators.

Long before Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform came to town, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, made up of the city’s corporate elite, provided the neoliberal framework for education reform in Chicago by promoting school choice and competition, corporate top-down decision-making structures, and weak teachers’ unions:

The collective bargaining agreement and elements of Illinois dismissal procedure assure that few teachers are ever removed from their positions because of poor performance. Teachers’ unions have adamantly resisted compensation arrangements that would reward excellence or penalize failure. As a consequence, the entire collective-bargaining apparatus has been designed less to improve teaching or student learning than to protect the interests of teachers.9

In the eyes of the corporate and political elite, “bad” teachers and their “bad” unions are not the only ones to blame for the problems of public schools. They say parents are responsible for making poor educational choices for their children. Continuing his anti-union and pro-privatization media blitz on the first day of school after the strike, Bruce Rauner was interviewed on public television (how ironic) with CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. When Rauner was asked for his response to the overwhelming parent support for striking teachers, Rauner dismissed this support as naiveté and portrayed public school parents as clueless about what quality public education is:

Many parents don’t really understand what’s going on inside their schools, as long as their child feels safe and their teacher is a pleasant person, they think things are all right. The tragedyis hundreds of thousands of children in the Chicago Public Schools are receiving an inadequate education and their futures are being damaged because if it.10

Rauner and other corporate elites have portrayed parents who do not buy into the corporate education reform agenda as defenders of the status quo, uninterested in change.11 These corporate reformers, in turn, pump significant resources into public relations campaigns to convince supposedly unwitting parents otherwise. In addition to anti-union radio ads, before the strike, Democrats for Education Reform under the name Education Reform Now paid for robocalls to CPS households with a message from a CPS parent urging the CPS and CTU to avoid a strike.12 Immediately after the strike, DFER paid for a $1 million commercial featuring Mayor Emanuel distorting CPS wins in the contract fight.13 During the strike, Stand for Children sponsored a “tele-town hall” meeting that featured parents disgruntled with the strike and allegedly did not allow callers to ask follow-up questions of the speakers.14

Although Mayor Emanuel has been fairly quiet on education matters since the teachers’ strike, he recently revealed what he thought about parents at a New York housing summit. He conveyed that parents are at the heart of what is wrong with Chicago’s schools: “The real problem is not just the education of our children. We have parents that can’t be parents.” He claimed “the most important door a child walks through for their education is the front door of the home. If that home is not right, nothing else in the classroom can supplement it.” And just in case he wasn’t clear enough about his stance that “bad” parents make for “bad” education, he added, that there are “too many kids in homes where none of that value structure, and the pieces that come with it, get there. What is missing here is that parental piece in helping us.”15

The financial stakes are high in education. The global education market is estimated to be worth upwards of $4.4 trillion.16 Clearly, Chicago’s corporate elite and corporate-financed education reform groups want a share of this education market, but to do so requires the destruction of the public schools, and unionized teachers, public-school students, and their parents are standing in the way. This discourse of blame obscures the economic, political, and social structures that are destroying public education and exacerbating the inequities across the district, particularly for African-American and Latino students. As activist-scholar Lois Weiner argues, it is the solidarity of teachers, communities, and social justice teachers’ unions that pose the greatest challenge to the increasing neoliberalization of public education.17

Parent and Teacher Solidarity

Chester E. Finn, Jr., who leads the conservative education policy center Fordham Institute in Washington, DC, believed a Chicago teachers’ strike would hurt teachers nationally. He said, “It’s probably about the dumbest thing they could do from a national standpoint. It will remind everybody that teachers’ unions are about teachers, not kids.”18 This could not be further from the truth.

During the massive downtown rally on the first day of the strike, Kristina Roque, parent of two CPS students, conveyed what many parents felt regarding the walkout. She said, “We want a fair contract for the teachers because their working conditions are our kids’ learning conditions. If the teachers are happy then our kids will be happy.”19 This became the parent mantra leading up to and during the strike.

Parents and caregivers see firsthand the kind of conditions under which our children have to learn and teachers have to work. We have relationships with teachers and other school personnel who understand our children’s hopes, talents, and challenges at school. We see how large classroom sizes, no teaching assistants or counselors, high-stakes testing, old textbooks (or not enough of them), lack of air conditioning during hot summer months, and run-down facilities affect our children. This is why parents and communities overwhelmingly supported striking Chicago teachers and paraprofessionals—they were standing up for their rights, dignity, and respect and they were standing up for the kind of education all of our children deserve.20

Parents, students, and communities across the city demonstrated their solidarity for striking teachers in many ways. Parents from the 19th Ward on Chicago’s south side tied red ribbons around trees, blanketing several blocks with puffy red bows.21 Others joined their teachers on the school strike line daily, bringing food and water, and honking in support as they drove by. Some parents opened up their homes so teachers could take periodic breaks during their early morning pickets. Many marched in lockstep with teachers during the large rallies in the afternoon, wearing buttons and red shirts, holding signs that read, “You can’t put children first if you put teachers last,” while some students had ones that read, “If you disrespect my teachers, you disrespect me.”

Even leading up to the strike, there was growing support for the teachers’ struggle. Parents sent their children to school dressed in red on Fridays when teachers and paraprofessionals across the city wore union red in a show of unity. The Labor Day CTU solidarity rally drew thousands downtown to Daley Plaza, filling CTA trains with more red-shirted people buzzing with excitement. At a community event after the union issued its ten-day notice to strike, Jitu Brown, organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, put the Chicago teachers’ struggle into clear focus. He said, “We have the opportunity to be the first large city in the United States to transform education for communities that have been historically underserved—for children who had the opportunity to be anything and were intentionally underserved. This struggle that the Chicago Teachers Union is in, we’re in it together.”22

During the seven-day strike, I helped organize some parents from my children’s elementary school to picket with our striking teachers. Before the strike announcement, I sent an email inviting parents to join my family and me on the strike line if a strike was called, but did not expect much of a response. To my surprise, I immediately received confirmation from several parents that they would be joining us with their children. Two parents committed to chalking the sidewalk early Monday morning with messages of support for our teachers on their first day of picketing. Other parents tied red ribbons around the trees in front of the school. We made “Honk 4 Teachers” signs, which helped to generate a stream of honks and hoots from passersby throughout the week. The children made their own sign on the back of a CTU strike sign and decorated it with dozens of gold stars that one of their teachers had in her bag. Dozens of parents and children showed up to picket throughout the week. Those who couldn’t stay dropped off food and water. One parent who owns a downtown restaurant offered free “teachers plates” to any striking teachers who showed up for the duration of the work stoppage.

On Friday, day five of the strike, a framework for the contract was available and teachers were hopeful that they would be back in the classroom by Monday. That Saturday, we rallied with people from across the city and allies from neighboring states at Union Park just west of downtown. It was a joyous time, almost like a big family picnic as we all expected to be back to school on Monday. But the following day, news quickly spread that the delegates did not approve of this framework for a new contract and did not suspend the strike. Parents once supportive were losing patience, and teachers were growing weary and desperately wanted to get back into the classroom. Our union delegate reached out to parents to let us know that the delegates also wanted to go back to school, but they did not want to vote for the framework and to suspend the strike because they had not been given enough time to read the document. They brought the framework back to their respective schools so that all members could review it. This was democracy, a little messy, but democracy nonetheless.

On the following Tuesday morning, hundreds of parents and community members showed continued support for their teachers and rallied with them in front of CPS headquarters and poured into the lobby to present more than 1,000 postcards urging then-CEO Brizard to support smaller class size, rich curriculum, no test-based pay, and fully resourced schools—conditions that the teachers’ union could not legally bargain over because of restrictions imposed by state law (Senate Bill 7). CPS officials refused to come down to receive the postcards, which only fueled the people’s resolve and they chanted, “Whose Schools? Our Schools!” as they left the building to continue rallying in the streets.23 That afternoon, union delegates voted to suspend the strike.

What’s at Stake and What’s Next

As Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis made her Sunday late-night announcement that the city’s teachers and paraprofessionals would stage their first strike in twenty-five years, my husband and I were waiting to be interviewed by a local television station to capture our live reaction. It was a fortunate turn of events that brought us to that point. The day before, we brought our kids to strike central as a show of solidarity, and a local news reporter asked if he could interview us when the announcement was made. We never dreamed he would actually call us, but he and his cameraman showed up on our doorstep on Sunday, shot some b-roll of our kids, and waited with us late into the night.

Right after the strike announcement and live coverage of Mayor Emanuel, we were on. The reporter asked us what were going to do with our kids during the strike. We said that we were bringing our children to our school’s strike line the next day to support our teachers and to teach our children what it means to stand up for yourself in a democracy. We criticized the mayor for supporting test-based pay since tying teachers’ performance to high-stakes tests forces them to narrow the curriculum and teach to the test. We also trashed the mayor’s assertion that class size doesn’t matter and asked if the mayor would want classes of thirty-five or more for his own children.

The interview was absolutely nerve-racking, but when it was over, we were happy that we were able to send that message. As soon as the camera was turned off, the reporter got word from his producer that he “blew it.” Apparently, we were supposed to portray the inconvenienced parents upset with striking teachers. The news producer wanted us to blame the teachers for this impasse in this contract fight, but we did not. We did not play by the rules of their blame game.

Since the Chicago teachers’ strike, the assault on public education in our city has gone into overdrive. As I write this, CPS is preparing to close at least fifty elementary schools, all in African-American and Latino communities. If the district follows through, this will be the highest number of school closings attempted in any single year in the city and nation. The corporate media and the public relations machine of the mayor and CPS have already framed the massive opposition to the school closings as parents interested only in the status quo and self-interested teachers looking to protect their jobs. And what the recent CPS school closings process has attempted to do is pit school against school as communities scramble to defend why their school should be spared. These tactics to undermine solidarities have fallen flat; community, student, parent, and labor groups have come together to challenge this massive round of school closings, building on the vibrant community-based education justice organizing that challenged past school actions and on the power of Chicago’s social justice teachers’ union.

What the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike gives us is hope that solidarity can in fact pose the greatest challenge to this intensified neoliberal assault on our public schools. An attack on one public school is an attack on public education as a whole.

No more games. It’s time to break the rules.

Notes

  1. Rick Pearson, “Emanuel Adviser Bruce Rauner Blasts Chicago Teachers Union Leadership,” Chicago Tribune, September 19, 2012, http://articles.chicagotribune.com.
  2. Bruce Rauner, “It’s Time We Say ‘Enough,’Chicago Tribune, September 12, 2012, http://articles.chicagotribune.com.
  3. Diane Ravitch, “In Colorado, Stand on Children Shows Its True Colors,” November 12, 2012, http://dianeravitch.net.
  4. How to Fool the Unions and Bribe Politicians—Aspen Institute Session on SB7” (video), July 10, 2011, http://youtube.com.
  5. David Dayden, “Anti-Union Ads in Chicago Paid for By Hedge Funds, Billionaires,” Firedoglake, September 19, 2012, http://news.firedoglake.com.
  6. Jeff Coen and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, “Emanuel Allies Press Attack in Teachers Union Battle,” Chicago Tribune, June 22, 2012, http://articles.chicagotribune.com.
  7. Rebecca Harris, “For the Record: Democrats for Education Reform,” Catalyst Chicago, June 28, 2012, http://catalyst-chicago.org.
  8. See tultican, “DFER and Education Policies,” Daily Kos, May 1, 2012, http://dailykos.com.
  9. Commercial Club of Chicago, Left Behind: Student Achievement in Chicago Public Schools, July 2003, http://civiccommittee.org.
  10. WTTW Chicago Tonight, “Mayor’s Adviser Attacks CTU” (video), September 19, 2012, http://video.wttw.com.
  11. See Susan Barrett’s July 8, 2011 essay, “Stand for Children: A Hometown Perspective of its Evolution,” http://parentsacrossamerica.org.
  12. Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), “Did CPS Share Parent Phone Numbers for Anti-CTU Propaganda Campaign?,” PURE, June 11, 2012, http://pureparents.org.
  13. See Jay Levine, Teachers’ Strike Over, But Both Sides Still Working To Spin The Dispute,” CBS Chicago, September 19, 2012, http://chicago.cbslocal.com; Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune, “How About Spending This TV Ad Money on Schools Instead of Spin?,” September 21, 2012, http://blogs.chicagotribune.com.
  14. George Schmidt, “‘SCAB FOR CHILDREN’ is born…,” September 12, 2012, Substance News, http://substancenews.net.
  15. Jill Covin and Alex Parker, “Rahm on Education Woes: ‘We Have Parents That Can’t Be Parents,’” DNAinfo.com Chicago, March 15, 2013, http://dnainfo.com.
  16. Valerie Strauss, “Global Education Market Reaches $4.4 trillion—And is Growing,” Washington Post, February 9, 2013, http://washingtonpost.com.
  17. 17. Lois Weiner, The Future of Our Schools (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012).
  18. Steven Greenhouse, ”In Standoff, Latest Sign of Unions Under Siege,” New York Times, September 10, 2012, http://nytimes.com.
  19. Nicole Radja, “Parents, Students Support Striking Chicago Teachers,” September 11, 2012, Time Out Chicago Kids, http://timeoutchicagokids.com.
  20. Whet Moser, “Poll Shows Substantial CPS Parent, Racial Divide on Chicago Teachers Strike,” Chicago Magazine, September 17, 2012, http://chicagomag.com.
  21. Casey Toner, “Teachers Supporters March at Mount Greenwood Schools, Ward Office,” Chicago Southtown Star, September 10, 2012, http://southtownstar.suntimes.com.
  22. Nick Burt, “Supporters Rally Around Teachers Union as Ten-Day Strike Notice Issued,” Occupied Chicago Tribune, August 30, 2012, http://occupiedchicagotribune.org.
  23. Brandon Campbell, “CTU Strike: Parents Show Support, Attempt To Hand Deliver Messages To CPS,” Progress Illinois, September 18, 2012, http://progressillinois.com.