My classroom is decorated with historical figures who inspire me. Every person on my wall worked to do what’s right, because they envisioned what a better future should be like for all people. These individuals cared so deeply about their country that they put themselves on the line to advocate for others, even if what was right was not popular, or even legal.
I became a social studies teacher because of them. These individuals knew that those in power used legislation and laws to control, discriminate, harm, and dehumanize people. People like Dolores Huerta, who had the courage to fight against a system that made it difficult for agricultural workers to even imagine organizing a “strike” or a “boycott”. People like Sal Castro, a teacher who was arrested and detained for his role in the 1968 student walkouts that protested the East L.A. school system’s overcrowded and underfunded classrooms. When these activists came across a damaging and controlling law, they would examine it, understand it, and purposefully refuse to follow it.
In Illinois, there currently exists a damaging and controlling policy toward teacher unionization, the result of a law rewritten in 1995. Known as the Chicago School Amendatory Reform Act, this policy was passed to silence teachers’ voices calling for equity in public schools. It gives the mayor full control of the school system and school board. And in an effort to make us look greedy, it forbid teachers from striking over class sizes or teacher appointments, essentially reducing the terms of negotiation to pay and benefits. The law makes it impossible for educators to force the city to admit that having over thirty kids in class is unjust; that understaffing and underfunding libraries at majority Black schools is unjust; that a system-wide shortage of nurses, counselors, and social workers is unjust.
This law continues to allow those in power to ignore the conditions and lack of resources in Chicago Public Schools. This law means that the teachers who are on the front lines are unable to get the city to negotiate over true improvements to our public schools. And the inequities students face are so devastating that many politicians and officials in Chicago don’t even send their own children to CPS schools.
The Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times, and even our own school system call us greedy, claiming that the Board of Education’s recent insufficient contract offer is a “sweet deal”— and otherwise ignore the problems. They want us to simply take a raise and ignore the fact that Chicago’s schools have been criminally underfunded for generations. Every student who has ever attended CPS knows this fact. Every parent of a CPS student knows this. Every teacher who has ever taught in CPS knows this, too. Our schools should have so much more than what they currently do or ever have.
Ninety-four percent of Chicago’s educators just authorized our union to strike. In 2012, when CPS was trying to take pay away from teachers, ninety percent of teachers voted to strike. Now, CPS is willing to give us our cost-of-living increases without a fight. So why did more teachers vote to strike this time? We have reached our breaking point: we are so fed up with looking into our kids’ faces every day and knowing this city truly doesn’t give a damn about them.
Mayor Lightfoot claims she’s not Rahm, but since she’s become Mayor, I hear a whole lot of Rahm in her statements. Rahm called us greedy and talked badly about us when we had our strike vote. In 2012, his administration drew upon the 1995 law to fight the Chicago Teachers Union in court—all because we had went on strike to negotiate over things besides pay and benefits. Mayor Lightfoot has done all of these things, besides suing CTU. But if she continues the failing Rahm playbook, I am sure another lawsuit is coming to CTU if we strike on October 17. The city will sue us because, as educators, we dare to demand that our students have everything they deserve, in writing.
Mayor Lightfoot said a strike would be “catastrophic” for the students. But in a series of posts on Twitter with the hashtag #PutItInWriting, educators and supporters detailed the real catastrophe (and decade-long catastrophic effects) the lack of funding and resources has had on our CPS schools and students.
Everything that our students, teachers and schools deserve, in writing, includes:
- Full-time librarians, counselors, clinicians, psychologists, social workers and nurses in every school
- The special education services students are entitled to by law
- The hiring of special education teachers, case managers and paraprofessionals
- Real class size limits
- The freedom for teachers to plan, grade and be professionals during our teacher preps—the limited time during the day when we don’t have students in front of us
- True restorative justice programs in schools
- Taking police officers out of schools
- Making all schools sanctuary schools
- Providing mental health services for all students and staff
Since the days of Mayor Daley, and continuing throughout the term of Mayor Emanuel, Chicago has fought against those on the front lines of education: the educators. If the city continues to refuse these demands under Mayor Lightfoot, students will continue to lack the resources that they deserve.
When Bernie Sanders was in Chicago recently, publicly supporting public school educators, he said, “…teaching is one of the most patriotic professions that you can do.” It is our patriotic duty to do whatever it takes to get our students what they deserve.
The Chicago Teachers Union will strike over pay and benefits. But we will also be striking to disrupt the status quo. We will be striking against systemic racism and generational neglect in our public schools.
We will be attempting to follow the lead of those people that I have on my classroom walls—the people that I’ve always aspired to emulate. There have always been bad laws used to harm, discriminate, and to silence people. It is once again time to ignore laws like that.
Dave Stieber is a National Board Certified Social Studies teacher in his thirteenth year teaching in CPS. His partner teaches in CPS and his two children attend CPS.