This morning, Rahm Emanuel told Chicago school teachers, “Don’t take it out on the kids of Chicago if you have a problem with me.” He’s right — teachers shouldn’t subject their students to overcrowding, underfunding, and a two-tier system that privileges smaller, privately-funded charter schools over large public ones, for one second longer. And so they overrode an absurd 75% strike authorization law with over 90% of teachers choosing to strike and make a stand against the school reform movement. A “reform” movement which wants privatize yet another public good, following the neoliberal path that Matthew Cunningham-Cook explains, “must open new markets, and the easiest markets to break into are ones that previously did not exist — that is, spaces previously considered public.”
As President Obama tepidly appeals to both sides, the Democratic party is caught in a bind that refutes the widely-held belief that it is the party of unions. It is not the party of teachers, and it is not the party of students. It is the party of privatization, of Wall Street, of the supposed “choice” afforded us by the free market. But it doesn’t have to be.
For the past decade, teachers have been the target of a vicious smear campaign which paints them as selfish employees who sap budgets by privileging their paychecks over the needs of their students (so, perfect capitalists, basically). This campaign has exploited poor, minority students by privileging some and leaving behind others. It throws millions of dollars at students in charter schools and celebrates their successes, while underfunding others and lamenting their failure. In both cases, the teachers, and not the money, are at fault.
After skirting Wisconsin and adopting the language but not the ethos of Occupy Wall Street, President Obama has a substantial opportunity to do something other than pay lip-service to a hardcore constituency. Twice this year, Obama has stopped treading water and sided with his base. By supporting gay marriage and offering amnesty for young illegals, Obama risked very little politically. Wouldn’t it be nice if he did the same with Chicago teachers?
It won’t happen, sadly. The Democratic Party is so reliant on corporate money that to publicly side with a union would empty the coffers real quick. If the party were to believe the good will engendered by brokering an equitable contract for teachers and students worth the loss of campaign funds, I’m sure they would support the Chicago Teachers Union. Unfortunately, this is a fight that has to be waged by teachers who feel disrespected, angry, and abandoned by the party they support.
They are incredibly brave. They stand against a corrupt party and limitless resources.
To the “school reform movement” this isn’t about the kids. This is about destroying one of the last public institutions in the country. Already, and with very little national coverage, the Philadelphia school system is being sold for scrap.
For teachers, though, this is about the kids. This is about taking however long it takes to stop the dismantling of the school system, and with it, a chance at a real, quality education for every child, with input and oversight by the communities they serve. This is about not giving up on 25% of Chicago students, even if their mayor already has.