Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Which side are you on?

Today, I returned to my classroom after a week at the bargaining table with Chicago Public Schools representatives and their lawyers. On Tuesday, the board had returned with none of the language they promised to deliver and essentially ended any concrete negotiations. We were on the verge of a strike--the third strike since my group, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators took over the Chicago Teachers Union leadership in 2010. I was happy to see my students and they had lots of questions about how the bargaining went and what came next. I wrote two sentences on the board:

A) All people have a human right to an equitable education.
B) It is too expensive to ensure that everyone has access to an equitable education.

After reminding my students the nature of "equitable" rather than "equal", they discussed the two statements in their table groups. After five minutes every group preferred the first statement, and most groups had already jumped to discussing examples of inequity in their own school lives.

I asked them whether the need for equity in this case was similar to everyone wanting an expensive car or extra spending money and they protested emphasizing that "education is not a thing you want, it's something you need to have a good life. We should all have it."

So, I asked them, what do you say to someone who says, "There's just not enough money to do that"? They said, "This is what's most important so that's where we should spend our money as a city." From there, we looked up and wrote on the board the Chicago Public Schools total budget:

(I miswrote one of the numbers, but this is the accurate number)

They were pissed. The money is there. Why isn't it used on what it should be? 

We talked about the four options that the students had:
1) Ignore the strike. Rest, play and come back once it's concluded. 
2) Support the board. Speak loudly about the need to end the strike and defer to the city leadership. 
3) Support the union. Come to the picket line and voice and demonstrate solidarity with the educators in the hopes that we will win. 
4) Support yourselves. Decide together what issues you see in your schools and use this opportunity to fight for them. They may overlap or not with the union's issues. In some cases, they may oppose the educators issues. 

Some students began listing issues they cared about and I took notes on the board. "Sports", "Health and Safety at school", "Materials", "Access to a gym and other facilities" (We are in a shared building where the other school's principal limits access to the two gyms in the building meaning many of our students have to take two of three Physical Education classes in a classroom space.),  and "less crowded classrooms" (their class has 34 sixth graders in it).

We compared the students' priorities to the educators' priorities and found a lot of overlap. I told them they we had written ours based on the principle of equity that they had chosen at the beginning of class. 

We talked about equity as something that in our neighborhood, we have always had to fight for. (I reminded some of them that the major high school campus in our neighborhood was only built after a long hunger strike by mothers and grandmothers in the neighborhood and survived due to student protests)

They wrote up their plans for the coming strike and shared with their groups. Some students planned to catch up on sleep and game; some made plans to join picket lines and downtown marches and others planned to head to the library to learn more. We dismissed and walking into the unknown, wondering when we would see each other again.

These struggles may see very familiar to many; but also utterly foreign to others. A simple read of the comments on local education articles (NEVER READ THE COMMENTS ;)) shows a deep divide between CPS students, their families, CPS educators and the more conservative readers whose own experiences are quite different. 

In these cases, sometimes it's useful to envision (we often use these exercises to prepare for writing in our classrooms):

Imagine for a moment a far away land in a far away time where children of color and of the impoverished are educated under an entirely separate school code than everyone else in the principality. Youth fear the onset of beautiful summer weather because it brings more shootings and more police violence. They sip from lead contaminated water while government officials deny the contamination risk. A beautiful child with disabilities lies lifeless at the bottom of a school pool after the school officials ignore his and thousands of other students’ federal rights to services under their Individualized Education Plan. Neighborhood schools are closed and defunded and they learn in squalid conditions where the leaders sign rich contracts with private firms who let rat and pest populations breed and spread rather than spending their ill-gotten gains on students’ safety. The leaders constantly cut positions and refuse to put together an effective substitute system, meaning that many students lack a consistent educator and others learn in overcrowded classrooms. When a student is injured or has an urgent medical need, they have to hope that it is that one day at the one time per week that a certified nurse is in the building. The previous mayor led a “war on literacy” that removed libraries from nearly every black school and most Latinx schools in the city while truncating public library hours and staffing. Through struggle, the people have secured an extra billion dollars in resources for the schools--an investment that is a tiny, fleeting flame of hope that flickers and dies in the face of a city and school leadership that is already directing those riches elsewhere.
This place you are imagining is our beloved Chicago. You are visualizing the beautiful schools where I have taught thousands of students and will send my own daughter the moment she reaches the age she can enroll (she missed by 2 weeks this year). Chicago’s new Mayor Lori Lightfoot was elected to lead our city with a billion new dollars from the State of Illinois and promises to end the machine’s oppressive, inequitable education system. She entered office with the platform and resources to accomplish this change. And yet, five months later, we are living on the verge of a huge municipal strike led not only by Chicago Teachers Union educators, but also SEIU special education assistants and security guards, and Park District employees. It is a battle not just for fair salaries and access to affordable benefits, but it is a fight against the deep inequities that plague our system.

Returning from teacher training in Japan to start a new teaching career in Chicago, I learned a great deal from my students and the veteran black teachers in the buildings. As they emphasized that merely surviving an unequal system was not enough; only equity would suffice, it echoed my own upbringing in some ways.

When I was about to turn seven, I remember listening to some of my father’s Irish Rebel Songs. I loved them so much that I would sit with my ear to the speaker and sing along at the top of my lungs. He asked me what I thought about them, and I asked, “It doesn’t say, but don’t they all die at the end?” “Yes, they definitely do.” “Why would they fight if they knew that they were almost certainly going to lose and die?” He told me that “Our ancestors dreamed of a day where a child of a child of a child of theirs would be born into a free Ireland. That dream kept us fighting and it’s not just an Irish dream, it’s a dream that belongs to all of us.”

Later my mother would say something similar about why our ancestors endured constant abuse, deportation, Chinese exclusion and prejudice to keep returning to the U.S. over generations until we could forge documents to stay.

As we come together tomorrow and every day forward until Chicago's political leadership meets our demands for equity, I would ask people consider two questions: 1) Do our children and students deserve what other students mere miles away receive automatically? Are our children as worthy of respect, love and support? 2) Which side are you on?

Our story is not unique; it is part of a struggle raging in every city, every community. As our battle in Chicago takes center stage, we ask that you lift us up and join us. As you kindle the same battles in your own cities and communities, we ask that you reach out and we will join you in solidarity.


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