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Selling the Soul of Public Education

Maya Schenwar: When it comes to teachers, Rahm Emanuel needs to sit down, shut up and listen to their more-than-reasonable demands.

As we traipse through these weeks of conventioning, I know that the my-parents-showed-me-what-hard-work-means tales are getting a bit old. Still, please indulge me for a couple of paragraphs.

My dad taught for 34 years in inner-city public high schools in Chicago. For much of my childhood, my mom taught elementary school, also in a Chicago public school. They are two of the most hard-working people I’ve ever met, and I will forever be inspired by their capacity for personal sacrifice to serve the common good.

Growing up, I thought it was normal for adults to spend nights bent over towering stacks of papers, to fill weekends with lesson plans, to jump on the phone after dinner to speak with non-English-speaking parents in Spanish about their kids’ struggles. And there was the ugly side: my dad’s class sizes crept larger, books became scarcer, administrations grew more vicious, the threat of “reconstitution” (kicking out a school’s teachers based on students’ standardized test scores) loomed gigantic. I confess that observing my parents’ challenges and trials up close over the course of 18 years convinced me not to become a teacher. It also convinced me that teaching was one of the most important jobs in the universe.

Fast-forward to right now, as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) verges on striking. The contract being pushed by the Chicago Board of Education and Mayor Rahm Sit-Down-and-Shut-Up Emanuel would devalue teachers, spurn the neediest students and unprecedentedly de-prioritize the public good. Their shameful proposal features a teensy pay raise, concurrent with markedly increased health care and pension costs – resulting, effectively, in a pay cut.

The Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS’s) school day was recently lengthened, and though the district promised that teachers’ hours would remain the same, many of their preparation periods are being crowded out by required duties like recess supervision. (Any teacher – or distant cousin’s friend of a teacher – knows that prep time is absolutely crucial.)

Contrary to Chris Christie’s blustering jerkifesto pitting “teachers’ unions” against “teachers,” the CTU is demanding not only justice for teachers, but also justice for kids and their families. One of CTU’s vital demands is a “better school day” for students across the socioeconomic spectrum, including modestly smaller classes, electives like art and music, and should-be-essential support staff like school nurses and social workers.

Under the district’s demands, teachers’ evaluations would largely reflect their students’ standardized test scores, an absurd barometer given the tests’ long-disproven ability to judge the quality of a student’s education. The measure would punish teachers at the city’s most disadvantaged schools.

Plus, though state law prevents the Board from making policy changes while bargaining is in progress, the Board has apparently charged ahead and nixed raises and sick leave increases for long-time teachers, according to the union.

My mom told me that – fresh off the CTU rally that energized thousands on Labor Day – she couldn’t bear to watch Mayor Emanuel’s speech at the Democratic Convention Tuesday night. (I watched it with my face squinched up and a glass of wine.)

The sad fact is, Emanuel can afford to deny CPS teachers and students their basic needs. That’s because his kids don’t go to public school – they’re enrolled in the University of Chicago Lab School (a great place, and the old stomping grounds of Malia and Sasha Obama). You can bet that the Lab School offers small classes, social workers, art and music. Oh yeah, and a school nurse.

As debilitating budget cuts gnaw at core programs in public school districts across the country, the showdown in Chicago will have reverberating effects. It’ll set a precedent for whether we, as a country, are willing to prioritize the rights and opportunities of the next generation of Americans, and of the people who serve them day in and day out. CTU president Karen Lewis wasn’t hyperbolizing when she said at Monday’s rally, “This fight is about the very soul of public education, not just in Chicago, but everywhere.”

When it comes to teachers, Rahm Emanuel needs to sit down, shut up and listen to their more-than-reasonable demands.

And when it comes to the future of public education, all of us need to think hard about one of the most important responsibilities of a democratic society to its citizens – and then support Chicago’s teachers as they move into the history-making struggle of the next few weeks.