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Democracy (Not) at Work in Chicago: The Teacher Strike Is Missing Some Important Voices

Wait, shouldn't parents and students be part of this movement too?

This week Americans have been watching images and listening intently to reports of the Chicago Public Schools teacher strike. Being the home to President Barack Obama and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—once regarded as the President’s right hand man—the Windy City's strike has political, economic, education, and teachers union officials watching closely to see what unfolds. As a parent—full disclosure: I have family members attending school and former students working in CPS— educator, and public school advocate, I've notice two major players missing from the media coverage and picket lines: Parents and students.

Read any Twitter stream or turn on any news channel and it's apparent that students and parents are not vociferously supporting strikers or Mayor Emanuel. Parents and students feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. Harsh economic times, overall poor academic achievement across the district, and neighborhood violence make it difficult for parents and students to empathize with and aggressively support CPS teachers.

Part of the problem is that the general public has only been allowed access to the sound byte-style information the media releases. One of the widely reported sticking points in the strike negotiations is the issue of teacher pay. Reportedly, CPS teachers' average annual salaries are above average compared to districts of similar sizes. Yet, despite these salaries, CPS has comparably fewer school days than other districts across the country. CPS students also lag behind in academic achievement, as measured by standardized test scores in reading and math and it’s known for its high dropout rates and low graduation rates. While many parents support schools and students really enjoy learning and want an education facilitated by an awesome teacher, the dilemma is that while they may want to empathize with the strikers, CPS has failed many families for generations.

The nation's also in a recession—CPS itself is in the midst of a major deficit—and that means low-wage workers—especially racial and ethnic minorities—tend to suffer the most. With Chicago's large black and Latino population and a 9.1 percent unemployment rate—higher than the national average—it’s very difficult for economically disenfranchised parents to sympathize with teachers. For some parents and students, teachers appear selfish in their arguments for higher wages.

Teachers also are asking for better working conditions—air conditioned rooms, smaller class sizes, and shorter work days. The union wants teachers laid off due to school closings or poor evaluations to be rehired when new openings become available. They say teachers should not be evaluated according to students' performance on standardized tests since that can be influenced by outlying factors such as poverty or other issues beyond teachers' control.

On their part, many parents and students are frustrated with strict discipline policies, poor graduation rates, and a lack of preparedness for college. Parents know that students are attending schools labeled "failing" by the No Child Left Behind Act. The stigma is bad enough, but how can parents support teachers, many of whom they feel disrespect their children, them, and other parents, or who are not adequately preparing their children for social and economic mobility?

Many students and parents are also navigating youth violence. For many community members, schools are safe havens and are viewed as a way to decrease youth violence through education, positive stimulation, peer support, and supervised time with adults. Therefore, the strike actually appears to be threatening the physical and psychological safety of Chicago’s youth.

If the Chicago Teachers Union wants parental and student support on picket lines, parents first must view themselves as socially and economically aligned with teachers. The message must be that Chicago teachers deserve a living wage that is dignified and worthy of the cultural work that teachers do on behalf of children and the community. In fact, the message should be that all workers deserve a living wage.

Teachers, parents, and students must do a better job—along with the media—educating the public on the harm and limitations of standardized tests. Teachers don't want standardized tests to be part of their evaluations because it's a questionable measure of their effectiveness. Students don’t appreciate routinized curricula that teach to the tests, sitting for inherently punitive, dehumanizing, assessments, or having their neighborhood schools closed because of a flawed measuring mechanism. Finally, teachers must advocate alongside community members to inform political officials of the connection between poverty, youth disenfranchisement, overcrowded neighborhoods and schools, and youth-related violence.

However, because the media is controlling the message and parents are not being brought to the bargaining table, democracy is not fully at work in this strike. It would be a nice show of solidarity in support of democracy and our nation's teachers if parents and students had more voice and say about what happens in their schools. Moreover, considering this is an election year, it would behoove parents and students to use Chicago's media exposure to organize in support of longer school days, a longer school year, the hiring of more qualified teachers, exposure to a culturally relevant, high quality curriculum, the eradication of dehumanizing discipline policies, and the opening of more neighborhood schools.

We know that the Civil Rights movement catalyzed major change, in part due to the overwhelming presence of active young people weary of educational disenfranchisement. This Chicago school strike must be publicized to parents and students as fundamentally a civil rights issue, not simply a "teacher pay" issue. Now is the opportune time for community and civil rights activists to organize, march, and agitate alongside the city's educators.

Photo via Chicago Teachers Union

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