“Every student in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) deserves to have the same quality education as the children of the wealthy. This can happen, but only if decision-makers commit to providing research-based education that is fully-funded and staffed in an equitable fashion throughout the city.”

These opening lines of the Chicago Teachers Union’s plan for improving their city’s schools should resonate deeply with families across the country. All students deserve a rigorous, well rounded, engaging education and many are working hard to provide that for their own and other children. In keeping with that implicit promise to our nation’s kids, Chicago’s public school teachers have gone an even greater distance--out on strike for seven days in September, they literally walked the talk in order to put some real muscle behind their vision, turning the words into actions that produced concrete results.


It is essential to remember, as others in BeyondChron have noted, this was not primarily a strike over pay, but rather a strike over the conditions in which teachers teach and in which students learn. Class sizes, basic facilities standards, legitimate and meaningful teacher evaluations, and concerns over school closures all fused together to form the core of issues that teachers everywhere know are central to a quality educational experience, but that Mayor Rahm Emanual and his appointed school board viewed as points that could be negotiated in or out.

Those seven days of a walkout resulted in some significant improvements that Chicago’s public school families have to look forward to, as detailed in this summary from the Union:
• Hire over 600 additional teachers in Art, Music, Phys Ed and other subjects
• Maintain limits on class size, increase funding for smaller classes
• Add a parent voice on class size committees
• Make textbooks available on the first day of school
• Increase racial diversity in hiring at CPS
• Lessen the focus on standardized testing – keep the focus on teaching instead of tests
• Provide more attention from school Social Workers and Nurses
• Increase funding for Special Ed teachers, social workers, psychologists, classroom assistants and counselors in schools with high caseloads.

Chicago has been one of the primary zones of mayoral control, privatization and standardization, all extreme causes of concern when Obama chose former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan to be his Secretary of Education. Those fears proved to be all too legitimate, as we’ve had to confront a fast-tracked effort to transform schools from a public good to a private enterprise. Chicago’s teachers, in achieving the above list of gains, made a first successful push back against the current arrangement of powerful forces that are attempting to morph our system of education into a system of profits. Wealthy elected officials, corporate executives of educational material companies, and questionably motivated “philanthropists” are increasingly degrading the quality of our schools, while ensuring a rich academic experience for their own children. Mayor Emanuel and company are not educating their children among ours, and they are not willing to set the standards of school as high for our sons and daughters as they are for their own.

This contradiction is not new; it’s been decried time and again, year after year. What has changed with the Chicago teachers strike is that the limitations of the traditional means of working with existing leadership were not allowed to stop the effort to obtain something much better for kids--and teachers. At some point, it is no longer possible to accept compromise after compromise, convincing ourselves that those choices don’t accumulate into a growing deficit of quality within our schools. Sometimes we have to make an even greater leap to defend what we have now and advance towards our ultimate vision. This recent strike, as painful as it was for everyone involved, was just such an act.

Chicago’s teachers voted this past Tuesday on whether or not to ratify the contract and we’ll know some time today which way that vote went. One thing is clear regardless--the strike, and in particularly the community organizing around it, points to an opportunity for a new force in support of a strong public education. More so than ever before, the time has come for educators, families and other supporters to take the lead from the Chicago community and seriously collaborate by recognizing our common ground and common interests and act together.

This November we will be casting votes in an attempt to secure more funding for our state’s schools in order to maintain a less than adequate financial fund to support the bare minimum our students needs. But, the passage of either tax measures Proposition 30 or 38 will be entirely insufficient for providing strong public schools to all children. While it is critical to cast our votes, we can no longer allow ourselves to be limited by ballot measures. Our imperative must be to fundamentally challenge the very restrictive frame into which the vast project of public education has been forced. The Chicago teachers strike has reminded us by example that this is actually possible, if only we dare to step outside of the well-worn paths to change that we have taken so far.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA.