09/13/2012 11:42 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

Chicago Teachers Strike: Shedding Light on Our Nation's Classrooms

Don't let Chicago's stunningly perfect blue skies and gentle 70-degree temps fool you. This town is on fire. Life here has heated up considerably since Chicago's public school teachers declared a strike on the eve of September 9. And it's a startling, painful, dramatic, and yes, magnificent sight to behold.

We're alive. This city is alive. For years, we've languished on the sidelines as our appointed and elected leaders made decisions about our city and our children. But in the last couple of days, Chicagoans have been roused from our collective coma. We're debating, arguing, and listening. We're finally learning about the laws, policies, and politics that are shaping our children's future. Do you know if your state passed laws regarding mandatory teacher evaluations? We do. Do you know how your city compares to others in terms of hours of school per day? We do. Do you know who has the authority to hire new teachers and where those teachers come from? Thanks to this strike, we now do.

I'll tell you one of the most interesting aspects of this somewhat excruciating process so far: not once have I heard anything about party affiliations. I haven't heard one comment about Romney's dog, Obama's birth certificate, or who's to blame for our crappy economy (answer: anyone in Congress who can't put partisanship aside and work together, meaning everyone). It's practically a post-partisan utopia around here. Rahm's getting slammed by the union, teachers are standing firm, CPS is releasing slightly canned sound bites, and Chicagoans are finally looking deeper and discovering an education system that is, if not broken, clearly struggling. It's a moment of reckoning as we -- city leadership, CPS, CTU, teachers, parents, and taxpayers -- accept the fact that we are all responsible for the sorry state of our schools.

Now it's not all pretty. There are some assholes who can't resist name-calling. Parents are anxious and scrambling for childcare. I know of kids who are literally crying because they don't understand what's happening and miss their teachers. Teachers want to get back in the classroom and do what they do best. But whether you're for or against this strike, one thing is certain: you are no longer unaware of the problems in our schools. Thousands of children are forced to learn in hot -- as in 98-degrees hot -- classrooms. Many schools don't have libraries or a school nurse every day. Teachers may have more than 40 (yes, 40) kids in a class. The inequality and obstacles are mindboggling. But they're no longer hidden, and that has to mean something.

Here's the bottom line. We relish the concept of American exceptionalism, an ideal that tends to come out in full force during an election year. We believe this country is the finest on earth -- with the best products and services, the best people, the best frozen yogurt, the best everything. Yet most of us have done little to contribute to the one resource that will enable us to stay relevant, let alone competitive, in today's global world: our kids. Chicago has finally shown the nation the obvious dissonance between who we think we are and the reality of what we'll become if we don't fix our schools. Although this process is painful, especially for CPS families, I'm so darn proud of Chicago for taking a daring and bold leap into our future.