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Teachers are striking to save public education

Work stoppages at schools across the country are not just for better salaries and benefits

February 9, 2016 2:00AM ET

In December, an overwhelming majority of public school teachers in Chicago voted to authorize a strike to take place this spring should they fail to reach a bargaining agreement with the Chicago Board of Education. A strike this year would be the second work stoppage in three years in one of the nation’s largest school districts.

Chicago’s 2012 strike, the first in 25 years, occurred after dozens of schools were threatened with closure, a move that would have sent children walking miles through rival gang territory. As the Chicago Tribune reports, the more recent strike authorization vote in Chicago followed teachers’ opposition to further budget cuts at a moment when what they are asking for is smaller class sizes and “more than 1,000 new school nurses, psychologists and social workers as well as hundreds of counselors and case managers.”

Chicago is not alone. In all, there were 14 work stoppages in public school districts across the country last year, more than in any of the last six years. Already in 2016 there have been some notable job actions by teachers, most prominently the rolling “sick-outs” of Detroit public school teachers who do not have the legal right to strike.

Teachers are striking in increasing numbers not just to raise employment issues such as salary and benefits, but also to highlight concerns about the quality of the public education system as a whole. In demanding concrete reforms such as smaller class sizes, fewer standardized tests and more equal schools across neighborhoods, teachers are defending education as a public good.

Beyond scapegoating

Over the past decade, advocates in the so-called “school reform movement” have pushed for the increasing privatization of public schools, primarily through the use of charter schools. In their diagnosis of what is wrong with the American education system, they have used teachers as a primary scapegoat.

A key example of this perspective was the misleading 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman,” in which the high dropout rates of the American education system were blamed not on declining school budgets in inner cities afflicted by white flight and deindustrialization, but on teachers. Here’s how the Harvard Educational Review characterized the worldview of Superman director Davis Guggenheim: “The protected, tenured teacher waiting to collect her pension is the reason why America’s children don’t have a high-quality education.” The “reform movement’s” solution? Charter schools, because they don’t recognize teacher’s unions.

A note in the Harvard Educational Review challenged such scapegoating. “For all of the glossing-over of facts, the incomplete or misleading statistics, and the unsupported claims,” it said, “Guggenheim’s biggest sins are those of omission.” In a movie ostensibly about teaching, “we never hear the voice of a single teacher,” and so a great number of schools are written off as in need of replacement.

The teachers who have been striking in the past year have made it clear that the choice between preserving teaching as a respected middle-class profession and improving the quality of education for our kids is a false one. Instead, the two must go hand in hand.

The scapegoating of frontline educators for the problems of the system as a whole has gone on for too long.

When teachers in Los Angeles were poised to strike last February, it was not only because wages had been frozen for eight years, but also because nearly 3,000 middle school and high school classrooms in the Los Angeles Unified School District were packed with more than 45 students, something the teachers argued was hurting the city’s kids. The district had consistently opposed limiting class sizes — until teachers threatened to walk out. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the district relented and in the final agreement included “funding to reduce the size of classes in key subjects or grade levels.”

When Seattle teachers struck last September, they gave voice to the demands of district parents across the city who had long soured on the rampant over-testing encouraged by the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. They argued that the district hurt students and educators alike by linking teacher pay to students’ grades on standardized tests — a policy disavowed by the very designers of those tests. Moreover, the massive amount of test prep eliminated time teachers had previously used for other subjects and activities, such as science and history, to the students’ detriment.

Seattle teachers had long supported parents’ opposition to the growing use of standardized tests. In 2013 and 2014, they led a nationally covered boycott of Washington state tests, earning the ire of Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan. But as the district refused to respond and moved to cut recess for elementary school students — a policy that not only undermines children’s enjoyment of school, but also their educational outcomes — Seattle teachers finally struck. After a week on the picket line, they won an end to test-based pay and class-size caps for special education students. As The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss wrote after the strike, “Seattle teachers had said they were not only fighting for pay raises but to make the system better for students. It sounds like they did.”

A catch-22 for teachers

Educators taking stands to defend public education are placed in a strange situation. School administrators often refuse to bargain over issues other than benefits and pay. Yet when teachers attempt to act within the bounds set by management, they are criticized as narrow and self-interested.

“For years we had been told that ‘unions would be respected more if you acted differently and showed that you cared about students,’” writes Mary Cathryn Ricker, the ex-president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers and current vice president of the American Federation of Teachers. When St. Paul teachers tried to bargain over community issues, however, the school district refused. Only after the union began organizing the community in preparation for a strike did district officials concede. St. Paul teachers won reduced testing, expanded pre-K, additional nurses, counselors, librarians and social workers, as well as a check to the expansion of charter schools replacing neighborhood schools.

As long as our public schools remain unequal and underfunded, we can expect that these issues will continue to surface in future teacher strikes and contract negotiations. In addition to the threat of a strike in Chicago this spring, teachers’ contracts will be expiring this year in Boston and in a variety of smaller cities.

The scapegoating of frontline educators for the problems of the system as a whole has gone on for too long. If teachers do move to use work stoppages, we should applaud them. They are providing a critically needed voice in defense of public education in America.

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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