Shannon Miller, an art teacher at Spencer Academy in Austin, stood on the corner of Madison St. and Central Ave., during an April 1 baptism by the wet whoosh and loud honks of cars whizzing by. This was the 26-year-old teacher’s first strike and the late morning rally, which was punctuated by a light drizzle, something of a rite of passage.
In 2012, the last time the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike, Miller was in college preparing for the unexpected rigors of teaching on the West Side of Chicago. But no amount of classroom training can quite prepare for a day spent shouting ecstatically at traffic while standing on a curb, a few hundred feet away from boarded-up Robert Emmet Elementary School, 5500 W. Madison, which was shuttered in 2013.
“This is not at all like I thought it would be,” Miller said of her foray into teaching. “I didn’t consider that I would be part of [a demonstration] like this when I was in school, but it’s absolutely necessary to stand up and support Spencer.”
Miller is one of around 27,000 teachers who refused to go to class last Friday, setting the stage for a day of demonstrations and protests citywide. It was the first major theater of battle in what could be a protracted war between CTU and Chicago Public Schools.
In February, a 40-member bargaining team representing CTU rejected the city’s four-year contract that would have instituted slight pay raises, stopped layoffs resulting from financial distress and capped the number of charter schools in the city at 130 in exchange for the teachers paying more into their health insurance and pension accounts, among other features.
CPS officials had argued in the run-up to last Friday’s walkout that the action could be illegal, a claim union members rejected before voting to authorize the one-day strike — which included dozens of other unions across the city, fast food workers seeking a $15 minimum wage and representatives from teachers unions from as far as away as Seattle and Mexico.
Many churches, libraries, parks and schools opened their doors to the roughly 400,000 students in Chicago Public Schools affected by the strike. Around 80 CPS students showed up at By The Hand Club, the after school organization located at 415 N. Laramie Ave., said Bethany Arvan, the organization’s director of crisis and compassion. All of those children are members of the club, which extended its normal operating hours to encompass a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work day.
By The Hand, which leases a facility to the recently opened Moving Everest Charter School, may have been physically removed from the many demonstrations taking place across the city, but most of the striking teachers and their supporters who were interviewed framed their complaints in a way that puts charter schools squarely into the maelstrom of debate between the union and powerful figures like CPS CEO Forest Claypool, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“We’re paying into a system that has steadily privatized our services,” said Tammie Vinson, who currently teaches at Oscar DePriest Elementary School. She taught at Emmet before it closed.
“We’re bearing the brunt of mental health facilities closing, schools closing, programs being divested,” she said. “There’s like way too much stuff that’s being taken away from us and they keep asking us to give more and more. It’s not a shared burden.”
“Most of the country doesn’t understand what we’re having to face in Chicago,” said Miller. “We have to fight for things that kids in other districts and states have.”
“I don’t believe that education should be part of a business,” said one West Side teacher, a native of Poland, who requested anonymity.
“I come from a country where education is free. Higher education is free. That’s why [so many people] have master’s degrees. It’s because it’s free. Everybody has access to free education. We do pay for things like books, but education itself is free and that’s how it should be.”
Steven McIlrath has taught at Austin Polytechnical High School for 22 years and lives in the neighborhood. The ratio of security personnel to social workers, he noted, is “high security to social worker” (“there’s technically one social worker in the school, but we do have a variety of programs in the building that are trying to reach out and do some of that social and emotional work”). He said around one in three students at the school is in special education and that, over the course of his tenure there, he’s been through 17 principals.
“It’s criminal that we would undergo that much change, but it’s kind of the political solution. If you think about it that way, charters are the Board of Education’s best option, because the board has decided that it doesn’t know how to fix these chronic schools. Name one school the board has fixed. They’ve shut a bunch down, reconstituted some, but name one that, after five or 10 years, the board has [actually fixed].
“There may be one — and if there is we ought to be studying the heck out of it — but I don’t think one exists. Charters are the best option, because now the board doesn’t have to worry about how to do it. They just have to hold people accountable and three years after that, if a charter isn’t working, they just take away their license and give it to the next person in line. So they don’t solve the problem anymore, they just move it around. It’s a shell game and at the end of the day, the students suffer.”
“Today, we’re really not addressing that,” said Vinson, referring to the teachers’ criticisms of charter schools. “We’re just about providing a safe place for kids to go today and helping parents who might be at work have a comfortable place to send their kids to.”