Let's be clear: I love, love, l-o-v-e teachers. The teachers at my kids' neighborhood elementary school, Nettelhorst, individually, and collectively, represent everything that's right with public education. So much so, I'd put their education on par with any private school in this country -- our teachers are that good.
I also respect unions. During the teacher strikes of the 1970s, my mom, who once taught seventh grade at Brooklyn's Ditmas Junior High, kept us home for weeks in solidarity (backgammon, anyone?). If Chicago's teachers do strike, rest assured, my kids and I will not cross a picket line.
Because I love teachers and respect unions, when NBC Chicago reported that more than 90 percent of teachers had given the OK to strike, my heart sank. While this vote doesn't guarantee a walk out, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis now has a green light to call for one at any point after August 17, the first day for a lawful strike. When Illinois passed the Education Reform Legislation (SB7), a law crafted by a diverse group of education stakeholders, this is exactly the volatile situation everyone hoped to avoid.
The new legislation sought to make strikes a true last resort by requiring transparency and an independent fact-finding process (37 states already prohibit teachers from striking). Back in April, both camps agreed to abide by a three-member fact-finding panel that includes Chicago Public Schools representative Joseph Moriarty, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey, and arbitrator Edwin Benn serving as the "neutral chairperson."
The law also dictates that 75 percent of all union members needed to authorize a strike, rather than a majority of vote-takers as previously required. If Lewis had waited for Benn to conclude his report on July 16, roughly two-thirds of the district's teachers would still be away enjoying their three month summer holiday, and 1,500 veteran teachers would have already retired (who would not be impacted by their vote). However, if she held-off until August 27, the week before school starts, Benn's compromise would have been on the table, and all 25,500 CTU members could have made an informed decision.
Although teachers are required to come back early for professional development and to set-up their classrooms, the sad fact is that many show up the day before school starts. Plus, 2,000 new teachers (of questionable allegiance) would have joined the ranks. Regardless of the margins, rested teachers are happy teachers. If Lewis hoped to reach the mandatory 75 percent threshold, waiting until the end of the summer was just too big a gamble.
With so much at stake, it should come as no surprise why Lewis also rejected an independent auditor to oversee the strike count in favor of ministers from ARISE Chicago, a workers-rights advocacy firm. "If I were in Karen Lewis' shoes," CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said, "I would want to assure the masses this is done with integrity, that this could be defended in the event there is a call of voter fraud." In the city of Vote Early, Vote Often, government watchdogs, like Andy Shaw, have voiced a communal wince, but at this point, the train has pretty much left the station.
To reach the power of "yes," Lewis, who's polemical in even the calmest of circumstances, has whipped Chicago's educators into a full-on frenzy. We can thank Governor Walker's anti-union teacher-bashing rhetoric for laying the groundwork for the red-shirted mob now marching with pitchforks against the House of Brizard, where the lights are barely flickering under a $700 million deficit. Lewis' uncanny ability to cast Brizard -- a man who was a teacher, whose wife is a teacher, and both parents were teachers -- as the city's anti-teacher has been quite a hat trick.
In the Springeresque circus that's come to town, we've seen Lewis flanked by rabid parent Matt Farmer and perennial parade-marshal Rev. Jesse Jackson (extra ironic since disadvantaged minority children will be the ones most impacted by a strike). And whoa! Hollywood? Even Matt Damon has piled-on. By the time the bouncers and 405,000 bored kids rush the stage, Wisconsin's pizza and beer slug-fest will look tame. This is exactly the kind of polarizing mess that SB7 sought to avoid.
Many civic leaders, including Rev. Michael Pfleger, have implored teachers not to strike for the sake of the kiddies. How adults model conflict resolution sends a powerful message, and we don't want kids to overturn the table, hurl ad hominems, pick up their toys, and go home. Agreed, but we also hope to teach our kids to be courageous, self-respecting and tenacious. Teachers have a right to get paid an honest wage for an honest day's work. Surely we don't want to raise marshmallows, right?
The real danger here is not the message to kids, but the message to adults: Lewis' move to hijack the process in the name of garnering more leverage -- which is her right -- has likely oversold what the union can deliver. Enough teachers have given Facebook thumbs-up to high school teacher Eric Skalinder's open letter to Brizard that it's probably a good barometer of current sentiment.
Trouble is, Skalinder's litany of grievances could fill a menu at the Cheesecake Factory. Like everyone in the capitalist equation who endures certain things in exchange for a paycheck, I share his pain. I frequently do not "feel respected or supported" when my computer takes too long to boot up, or my online storage runs out, or my office gets too hot. I, too, get especially ticked-off when smart people don't pay me enough mind or stupid people make decisions for me.
It would be swell if Glenda the Good Witch could sweep in and solve all of Skalinder's issues, but precious few of them are subject to collective bargaining. SB7 limits the discussion to pay and benefits. Nothing else is on the table, not because Brizard is a bully who hates teachers, but because he's following the law -- a law that both CPS and the CTU helped craft.
So, as we gallop-off for a well-deserved summer break, tucked inside the envelope of my teacher's end-of-year gift card will be this little note:
I hope you know just how terribly important you are, not just to my darling kiddo, but to me as well. You are the rock in our life.
Though this may not sit well, please, please don't strike. My community has spent almost a decade trying to build a schoolhouse that would do us all proud; a strike may very well undo all our progress. Do you really want to go back to Chicago, circa 1987?
Both the Mayor and the CEO have said that teachers deserve a raise. Hear, hear! I have no doubt you can reach a reasonable number (somewhere between 2 percent and 30 percent) at the bargaining table -- the place where your leadership agreed to resolve disputes.
But most importantly, next year's students shouldn't miss one single, solitary, second of wonderful you.
Enjoy the summer! SB7/SPF 70,
Jacqueline, a CPS mommy
Author update: An earlier version of my post made use of the words "midget" and "freak show" in a manner that offended some readers and drew complaints. The post was revised by the editors, who in the meantime reached out to me for comment. I want my readers to know that I had no intent to offend anyone, and regret my original choice in words.