This week, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), representing more than 25,000 teachers and the roughly 400,000 students and families they serve, announced their intent to strike and set a deadline of October 17 to reach a deal with the city. In doing so, they build on their 2012 strike that inspired educators across the country — from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Los Angeles — to fight for better wages and health care, professional respect and reasonable class sizes, and desperately needed frontline staff like school nurses, social workers, and librarians.
CTU teachers are also striking for the survival of public-sector institutions and against a bipartisan austerity agenda that, ironically, was incubated in Chicago decades ago. After all, it was “the father of school choice,” Milton Friedman, who founded the Chicago school of economics that spawned generations of neoliberal acolytes like Gary Becker, who infamously reduced schoolchildren and learning to “human capital.”
Over the last thirty years, Chicago-school free-market economics and the ideology of “school choice” has informed the education agendas of both major political parties. During the Bush era, No Child Left Behind used “school choice” and high-stakes standardized testing to justify attacks on public education and scapegoat teachers and their unions. Around the same time, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore promised to triple the number of charter schools in the country under the rubric of “universal school choice.”
In Chicago, that same mantra was used by mayors Richard Daley and Rahm Emanuel, and CEO of Chicago Public Schools Arne Duncan, to legitimize mass school closures and the simultaneous proliferation of privately run charter schools. As education secretary, Duncan championed the deregulation of charters on the national level, while advancing a high-stakes testing platform tellingly named “Race to the Top.” The current secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, can best be described as a school-choice fundamentalist.
The truth is, “school choice” has been disastrous for public schools and has robbed teachers of autonomy and the dignity of a living wage. Students are being packed into classrooms and the joy of learning drained by the requisites of teaching to the test. In some school districts, teacher pay is so low, and health-care and housing costs so high, that teachers are moonlighting at Walmart and McDonald’s to make ends meet. Because of these and other inequities, 20 percent of teachers leave the profession within five years — a turnover rate that’s more pronounced in low-income communities of color.
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has argued that in the richest country on earth, the people in charge of educating our youth should not be living paycheck to paycheck and struggling for affordable, quality health care and housing. He has called for a starting salary for teachers at no less than $60,000 per year, tied to cost of living and years of service, and has promised to protect tenure and collective bargaining rights. Sanders has said that he views teachers as professionals capable of running their own classrooms and creating their own lesson plans.
In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel told countless parents and teachers that he could not afford to raise teacher pay and keep their schools open. Out of the other side of his mouth, however, he offered a more than $2 billion “incentive package” to Amazon — the wealthiest company in the world, which pays an effective tax rate of zero.
That kind of bold-faced upward redistribution of wealth, in which budget cuts in public-school funding are used to bankroll tax cuts and corporate welfare, has become a nationwide trend, thanks to the American Legislative Exchange Council and other corporate lobbyists whose Chicago-school agenda has been met with only episodic political resistance — until now.
Sanders’s solution is to make the rich pay their fair share and put the money back into public education. If elected, he said that he will triple Title I funding to make sure that at-risk schools get the support they need and fund 50 percent of the cost of special education — above the 40 percent promised by the federal government decades ago. He has called for increased funding for Community Schools to transform our education system into a high-quality public good that connects education, health, and social services to young people. And at a time when one in six children in the United States is going hungry, Sanders plans to mandate universal school meals.
We know from “experiments” in Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere that charter schools divert funds, classroom space, real estate, and other key resources that would otherwise go to public schools — and that this has especially hurt kids with special needs and those living in urban areas with large communities of color. The charter school expansion that Duncan oversaw in Chicago, for example, resulted in massive school closings and teacher layoffs of more than half the district’s veteran black teachers.
Now, billionaires like DeVos and the Waltons, together with private equity and hedge-fund executives, are pouring tens of millions of dollars into school board and other local elections in hopes of using charter schools to privatize our education system. As of 2014, the Waltons helped kick-start one out of four charter schools in America, and over the past five years have spent between $63 and $73 million annually to open new charter schools.
Sanders is the only candidate who has a plan to confront this problem head-on by supporting the NAACP’s national moratorium on charter school expansion and banning the use of federal funds on for-profit charter schools.
We know that power concedes nothing without a fight. Sanders is the only candidate in the 2020 race who is talking about taking on the charter school industry and other powerful interests and fighting for a standard of education that serves both rich and poor children alike. And he plans to guarantee every union worker in America, including public-sector workers, the right to strike.
The CTU struggle, and the teachers’ strike wave of which it is a part, should be a warning to those in power that US workers are ready to fight for real investment in public goods like education. The Sanders campaign stands with the CTU and all educators in their fight for the schools that our students and teachers deserve.