I've been a Chicago Public School parent for several years, having a sixth, fourth and kindergartener in the system. I just lived through my seventh "Back to School" experience of my parenting career, and while my kids might be settling in, my feeling and the feeling among many parents is noticeably, unsettled.
The first quake to knock parents off balance this school year was the Chicago Public School teachers strike. Unlike real earthquakes, which are unpredictable, we actually had a 10-day notice that this might be something registering on the Richter scale. It was the strike continuing into the second week that proved unnerving. Teachers out of the classrooms for one week was somewhat tolerable, but going into week two tried the patience of many parents. If you are the parent of more than one child, you are no doubt familiar with squabbles and loud claims of "he started it!" then, nerves frazzled, you raise your voice above the fray stating "That's it! I've had it! I don't care who started it! Quit fighting and find something to do!" A lot of parents felt these words rise up in them as the strike rounded week one and headed into a second week, but since parents were not present during the negotiations, we couldn't say "Enough! Both of you knock it off!" as the two parties kicked each other under the table. This gave rise to a very uncomfortable feeling for parents: loss of control. This strike affected us, our kids, our lives, and we had no control over it. What is more, parents are realizing that this feeling somehow did not dissipate entirely once the strike ended.
Regardless of how anyone feels about Chicago teachers striking, the fact remains, it is within the legal rights of the teachers to do so. Parents who never thought about this aspect of public education now realize that a strike will always be a possibility, like the possibility of an earthquake for those living along the San Andreas Fault line. A strike may never happen again, but it could. The possibility is there and now that we have all lived through it, we might be a little uneasy about hanging the pictures back up on the wall. Kindergarten through senior year is 13 years, even more years if you have more than one kid. Who's to say a teacher's strike won't happen again in a CPS parent's lifetime? It is beyond our control.
The strike unearthed some other points many parents hadn't realized, among them, the way some neighborhood schools are being turned into charter schools. I support parents having as many education options as they can get their hands on. I don't know a single parent who would not want more options regarding their child's education, but since charter schools use a lottery to gain admission, it really is more of a "chance" at a school and not a true "option." What's more, when CPS closes down a neighborhood school and turns it into a charter school, it limits the class sizes and has no boundary regulations. So, this new charter school has limited seats, and is available via lottery to every kid in the city. You could live across the street from the building, but your children may not get in. So the professed "option" of a charter has actually taken away the very real "option" of going to the school closest to home. Again, as a parent, this is a feeling of not having control over this major part of your kid's childhood, where they attend school.
The issue of testing/assessments also came up during the strike. Teachers were arguing that they did not want a large portion of their effectiveness being evaluated based on testing. There were too many other factors that played into the success of a student's learning: wealth or lack there of, stable home life, or lack there of, safe neighborhood or lack there of, to name a few. I think many parents waved this argument off thinking, "Well, that's the teachers problem to negotiate." The picket line chants of, "What do we want? A fair contract! When do we want it? Now!" was for many parents, and I'm showing my age here, like nails on a chalkboard. Fight for the learning conditions of the kids sure, but don't march around crying "no fair" while our kids our being shut out of their classrooms. However, even the parents who had no real feelings about how teachers were evaluated, even the parents who felt that the "fair contract now" cry had nothing to do with the students, began to realize that the testing, the assessments used to evaluate the teachers, did indeed use their children as measuring devices. Some testing sure, but not the quantity of days that are consumed now by assessments. Maybe a better picket line chant would have been, "What don't we want? Kids as yardsticks! When should that end? Now!" Framed this way, it shows the impact of assessments on the students and not just the teachers. Most parents knew testing was happening, but didn't realize just how much of the education calendar they used up. For parents, it was lack of control yet again.
No one likes the feeling of not having control, especially when it comes to our kids. Maybe it's because the kids themselves test us so often, trying to wrestle us for control over their lives. As parents, our days are already laced with power struggles within our home. We don't need any more outside the front door. This is why parents have refused vaccinations in doctors' offices. This is why parents protest when someone tries to tell them what to feed their kids. This is why parents rally when books are threatened to be banned from libraries. It's about feeling in control of your own offspring. I think parents in CPS have had that control shaken and most are concerned about the aftershocks to come.
When people feel a loss of control, they get angry, and when people get angry they tend to kick into fight or flight more. Flight is not an option for many CPS parents, so that leaves fight. Most parents would love to drop their kids off at the nearest neighborhood school and know that an incredible educational experience awaits. Few feel that way though. The earthquake that was the strike shook the topsoil off a lot of disturbing issues and now out in the light, parents can't ignore them. Advocating for our kids, some may call it fighting, feels a whole lot better than feeling a loss of control.
This blog post is part of HuffPost Chicago's "State of CPS" series, which features perspectives from Chicago Public School teachers, students, administrators, staff, parents and others experiencing recent changes to the district firsthand. Interested in sharing your take? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.