Skip to content Skip to footer

School Shutdown in Chicago Underscores Attacks on Public Education Nationwide

On this day of cross-sector protests throughout Chicago, a teacher speaks out about chronic underfunding.

Annie Tan demonstrates with fellow Chicago Teachers Union members in February of 2016 during a protest over debt owed by the school district to Bank of America. (Photo: Courtesy of Annie Tan)

Fight back against the spread of misinformation perpetuated by mainstream news. Help independent media thrive by making a donation to Truthout today!

Across the country, as public school systems in major cities follow a trend towards privatization that has left the city of New Orleans without a single public school, community outcry over disappearing resources and unrelenting standardized testing mandates has increasingly hit the news.

But in the face of dire circumstances, recent years have also seen a resurgence of teacher union activism. At the start of 2016, in Detroit — where the $515 million in debt school system has been forced to borrow $50 million to simply finish the year following a $12.3 million corruption scandal — the Detroit Federation of Teachers shut down 88 of 97 schools with a “sick-out” to expose the dilapidating conditions of their schools.

Meanwhile, in Seattle, a growing grassroots movement led by teachers and students has driven a boycott movement against what local teacher Jesse Hagopian deems the “testocracy.”

But nowhere has the battle for the soul of education come to a head as it has in Chicago, where public sentiment favors the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) over Mayor Rahm Emanuel by a ratio of three to one — and where long before Emanuel was put on his heels by calls to resign in the wake of the Laquan McDonald police killing, he was dealt a blow by the teachers’ union with a successful strike in 2012.

Yet despite that high point for social justice unionism, Chicago public school students and educators faced the closure of 49 neighborhood public schools, each in predominantly Black neighborhoods, the following year.

Currently, the CTU is in negotiation with the city following its most recently proposed contract, which seeks to force the early retirement of 2,000 teachers. With an arbitration deadline looming, the union has announced a one-day strike for “a fair contract that lets teachers teach,” in the words of 26-year-old Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher Annie Tan.

The teachers union’s call for solidarity to “shut down” business as usual on Friday (promoted under the hashtag #ShutDownChi) has been met by an upswell of organizing by students and the city’s broader social justice movement: Solidarity events are unfolding across the city throughout the day, alongside the walkouts occurring across the district’s schools. The consortium of Black youth-led groups that recently ousted Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez from office is rallying at the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice with a call to close youth prisons across the state, and reinvest the funds in community programs, before converging with the teachers. The living wage, “Fight for $15” movement has also joined #ShutDownChi efforts, which have been likened to a one-day general strike.

Hailing from New York City’s Chinatown, Tan is one of 30,000 members of the CTU, currently serving as chair of its special education committee. She spoke with Truthout in the days leading up to the strike about what she is fighting for on the picket line, as a teacher committed to social and racial justice.

Annie Tan on School “Reform”:

I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was 6, when I had a wonderful teacher of my own, Ms. Sheridan. My mother tells me that as a toddler I didn’t speak at all until I was 3, and that as I grew older I would cry to express anything. I don’t remember a single thing as a child up until I was 6 other than me just constantly crying. Then all of a sudden Ms. Sheridan made me want to say and learn more.

I realized very early on that I wanted to be a teacher and that being a teacher meant giving students opportunities to share their voice.

When I started student teaching, more and more students would come into my classrooms with disabilities — and I had no idea what to do. I knew then that the only way I could be the very best version of the teacher I wanted to be was through special education.

I’m an elementary school teacher because I love building students up, using whatever strengths they have. Every day for me, half the job is to help the people around a student understand what that student is strong in, what they need and how to provide it.

But three out of 10 months of the school year, I’m just testing students. People who don’t know our students are now creating these tests and state standards, and there are human costs involved in having decision makers who don’t know students.

An Institutional Fixation on Standardized Tests

It’s extremely harmful to our students to have standardized inputs forced on them. It makes them feel awful about themselves when they already feel this sense that they’re not “normal” in the system.

And what is not even mentioned in this conversation is poverty — how poverty affects test scores. If you look at charts of SAT scores, if you are in a poorer zip code, you have lower SAT scores. Across the nation, it’s like this.

Politicians can say there’s a crisis in Chicago public schools because we have low test scores. But we have lower test scores than better-funded schools in the suburbs because our kids are in poverty.

I have kids who don’t have the proper clothes coming in every day. I don’t say that to victimize my students. This is their reality. Parents are working three jobs to try to support their kids and to pay rent.

There are all these issues that come into our schools that we need to work on first. If our students don’t have a home or food, or the emotional support they need, they can’t get the test scores expected from them.

We’re constantly trying to fix societal problems as an education system. We’re the one system that really provides for young people who are poor, in the whole nation.

We are builders. We build people. So it’s such a shame that we don’t have the resources we need.

This larger vision is constantly getting lost — and unions help with that. A lot of people knock unions and say unions protect people who are awful. But in the larger scheme of things, unions are one of very few institutions left that can speak for a lot of people.

The Defunding of Public Education

The reality is that our schools are severely underfunded and the solution boils down to resources for our students.

I once worked in a school where we didn’t have books. How would you feel as a child if you didn’t have books at school? You would feel like you’re being neglected.

The mayor and other politicians, they don’t have kids in the public school system. They are losing nothing from not funding the Chicago Public Schools system.

Meanwhile there have been decades of politically motivated contracts and missteps in spending. There was a janitorial contractor that forgot about covering nine whole schools and went $22 million over budget as a result. Our schools chief was being bribed by her former company to give them a contract in exchange for millions of dollars in kickbacks. Because of bad loans, Chicago Public Schools owes Bank of America in excess of $200 million. School systems elsewhere have sued banks back for that money, over the debt from toxic swaps and have won. CPS isn’t making that challenge to Bank of America.

On top of this, instead of providing resources to schools that already exist, the system is constantly in chaos, switching resources to new schools that open and close and to constantly shifting staff. Instead of fixing the problem, which is that our schools don’t have resources for the kids who already need resources.

As a result of lack of funding — of trying to get more tax dollars in for education, and a lack of will to do that — we have schools that are 90 percent free or have reduced lunches, but do not have the proper resources to actually teach.

We say we have this “American Dream.” We say we’re the greatest country in the world. But we can’t provide necessities for our students in a public institution.

Many schools don’t have copy machines. A lot of schools don’t have counselors to counsel students when there’s rough situations at home. There’s a lack of social workers, a lack of nurses.

I had an incident with a student last year, where we were really fortunate. A student got hurt — it was a serious wound — and if it were not on Thursday morning, the nurse would not have been there. She is only contracted to work a half-day on Thursdays, for the whole week.

When I went to school in New York City’s Chinatown, it was a given that there’d be a nurse there. Things happen as kids. You trip, you fall over each other playing.

This is not something a teacher should be thinking about. I’m already a social worker and a counselor, and helping my students tie their shoes. I don’t have a medical degree.

When Chicago Public Schools is cutting services like this, I don’t think they are thinking, “What is best for students,” but rather, “How much can we cut in order to make the system not thrive, not survive, but just exist?” What kind of school system is that, that’s striving just for existence?

Students constantly end up last in this picture.

Putting Students First

The reason the Chicago Teachers Union’s previous strike succeeded, I think, is because teachers truly fought to put students first. My CPS identification card says, “Every child, Every school,” but no one buys that from CPS administrators. It’s a sad joke. If you’re constantly cutting services, how can we believe that you operate as if every child, every school matters?

When I get to teach each of my students — to build up their strengths and create opportunities in the classroom where they get to learn through their strengths — then I’ve done my job. But it’s getting very impossible alongside this strict teacher evaluation system, and the chaos happening in CPS, to do my job.

We’re overworked. I work 10-12 hours a day. If you divide that by my salary, I’m probably making less than minimum wage. I’m not here to complain about my wage though. I just want to know that if I needed to, I could buy a house one day and I could afford to live in this city, that I don’t have to work a second job at some point if I want to raise a family one day.

I have this vision that my students are going to live happy, full lives in whatever way they want. Where they are seen and heard for everything they are. We build that together, my students and I. There’s no way for anyone to feel their full self without help. The best avenue that I’ve found for myself is the union.

Nationally, “reformers” are pushing Common Core State Standards. Nationally, they are pushing rigid teacher evaluation systems, where we’re kept busy being made to prove that we are good, where we’re told as a starting point that we have deficits in ourselves as teachers. It’s awful to have to think of myself as someone who’s not worthy to teach, to come in day after day into a CPS system that constantly tells me I’m crap in a society that does not respect teachers. That’s very hard.

This deficit thinking towards teachers ends up becoming deficit thinking towards students.

We have to start from the supposition, not that our kids have a deficit in meeting standards, but that they come with what they have — and we bring that to the fore in the classroom.

What that looks like is actually giving our students a chance to voice what they have inside of them. That’s outside of testing. That’s outside of these evaluations that force teachers to finish off a checklist and focus on observation just to keep their job.

Envisioning Restorative Justice in Schools

We have to have a longer-term vision of what schools should look like for our students.

I think schools are imperfect — they always have been. We need to get beyond this chaos so we can get better at diversity and how intersections of identity affect how we interact with others and how students interact with the world.

Laquan McDonald was a CPS student on suspension. We have a system that feeds into racism in the first place.

Unfortunately right now there are a number of schools in Chicago, namely charter schools, that have high suspension rates of students. Suspensions are intertwined with this idea that our students are “thugs,” that they’re not worthy of an education.

A student in my first year of teaching brought a toy gun to school and was suspended immediately for three days — a third grader. I don’t think he knew bringing a water gun to school was going to lead to a suspension for three days. He was 8 years old. Having such punitive consequences in school settings means that there are a lot of schools in Chicago that do push out kids, unfortunately.

CPS has tried to move towards more restorative justice practices, in terms of peace circles and helping students to understand that they have choices before conflicts escalate. But CPS forced that on a system that has suspended students for so long that to mandate peace circles doesn’t work. To mandate sensitivity and bias training to police officers in a system where mass violence occurs on a regular basis doesn’t work. It’s something that must be experienced and taught. But we’re constantly forced to rush to the next thing with CPS, and restorative justice practices are not given the attention and love that they need in order to fully function.

This is one of many reasons we fight for the schools our students deserve.

Why Teachers Strike

Teachers have realized that our only leverage is our work. This city would not function without us. That is a clear countermessage to the disrespect and the policies that are being pushed on teachers right now. Our children are worth it. They’re why we walk into school every day. We withhold our labor and walk out because we need everyone to see that children are worth it.

With our one-day strike, we’ll be talking about how Chicago needs to provide revenue resources to schools, in the form of progressive taxes, taxes on bonds and trades — and we’ll be giving ourselves voices. I’m going to be marching with my school, with my fellow teachers.

To blame everything on a budget crisis when there are ways to create revenue and resources for students is ludicrous when it’s been decades in the making — decades of politicians not paying what teachers and other state workers are owed in their pensions. This did not have to happen, and we’re fighting for what was constitutionally promised to us. I don’t think we’re greedy.

Because CPS is broke, the union has asked for non-economic concessions — less teacher evaluations, less testing, less paperwork. Things that make teachers lives and students lives better, immediately. Things that really allow us to teach, and to be with our students.

Chicago Public Schools needs our work, despite all of their messaging, and we need a fair contract that allows teachers to teach. We need to be able to do our jobs and we need the resources to do those jobs. And students do come first with us. They deserve those resources.

Countdown is on: We have 4 days to raise $34,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.