Through chants, music and fiery rhetoric, the message delivered to thousands of red-shirted teachers and their supporters at a Saturday union rally was clear: We do not have a contract. We are still on strike.
"We have a framework for an agreement," Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis told the crowd. "We don’t have an agreement."
Lewis also suggested the air conditioning be turned off at Chicago Public Schools headquarters, the mayor's office, and education foundations supporting school shake-ups, "and let them work like we work!" she said.
Just a couple miles away from the Near West Side rally, lawyers were working on contract language they hope will return 26,000 teachers and support staff to school Monday morning.
But Lewis cautioned teachers not to get ahead of the contract process. She said some principals are requesting that teachers return to classrooms Sunday to prepare for school. "It's not true until you hear it from CTU," Lewis told them.
Chicago teachers, some with families in tow, and busloads of teachers from neighboring states came out in a show of solidarity against not only the Chicago Board of Education and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but also against education reforms that are unpopular with many teachers across the nation: increased use of standardized testing, a focus on teacher evaluations tied to those tests, and expansion of charter schools. Many classroom teachers feel other issues are more urgent, like reducing class sizes that hit 30 and sometimes 40 in Chicago, and restoring enrichment classes that have been cut from schools over the years.
Lewis addressed head-on the issue of teacher evaluations, one of the key stumbling blocks in negotiations this past week.
“I want to be evaluated," Lewis told the crowd. "I want somebody to tell me how I can get better as a teacher. I want them to come into my classroom and see what it is I do. But don’t tell me that a random test that you picked off of a shelf that some child bubbles in is going to tell you what I’ve done. It does not.”
Chicago is implementing an evaluation system that will rate teachers in part on how well students do on standardized tests. Art teachers and other instructors teaching courses for which standardized tests don't exist will be rated in part on reading scores for the schools where they teach.
Hedy Hirsch, a special education teacher at Milton Brunson School on the city’s West Side, said many of her students are mentally challenged with emotional issues. Yet, the district wants to base her evaluation on the students' test scores.
“So what does this show, my evaluation being based on their test scores? I should be there to help them, develop them from where they are at," said Hirsch. Some special education advocates and those pushing for reforms of teacher evaluation systems say the system needs better checks and incentives to ensure kids are learning.
The Chicago teachers strike has become a nationwide rallying point for organized labor. In a passionate statement to a cheering crowd, Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, drew a parallel between Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff for President Barack Obama.
It was Walker who ended nearly all collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin in a battle that nearly lead to Walker’s removal from office and made him a conservative star. Late Friday, Walker's law curbing unions' power in Wisconsin was struck down by a judge.
“Walker and Emanuel are two sides of the same pro-corporate, pro-privatization agenda,” Peterson said.
Labor leaders from other sectors also spoke. Jean Ross, president of National Nurses United, told the crowd, “I love these little uprisings! First Wisconsin and now you guys! You gotta love the Midwest, right? We people have common sense.”
Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU Local 1, which represents some privatized janitors who work in Chicago public schools, said his union's support will continue. He said janitors at three high schools stood outside in a sympathy strike with teachers Friday.
Speakers also targeted school closures. The district has shut down or completely re-staffed more than 100 schools in the last decade. Union and district negotiators have been fighting over a recall policy for teachers laid off in what are expected to be dozens more closings.
“As a student, I shouldn’t have to worry about our schools being closed down,” said CPS student Keshaundra Neal, who attends Dyett High School, which the district is phasing out. “We shouldn’t have to read books that are about the same age as us. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS are focused on teacher evaluations, but what about a system evaluation?”
Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization led teachers in a chant for a moratorium on school closings.
In the park, teachers carried homemade signs, many targeting the mayor. Many said they were motivated to strike and to come to the rally by conditions in their own classrooms.
Daniel Rinehart, a teacher at Disney Magnet School, considered one of the system’s more privileged schools, carried a sign that said, “Got UNION problems? I feel bad for you RAHM. I got 39 students in my class, and your kid ain’t one.”
“It’s always the excuse that there is no money,” said Rinehart. “Look around, you see what’s funded and what’s not. And people are angry about that.”
Mihaela Mateescu, a teacher for the last 10 years at Cameron Elementary in West Humboldt Park, says she's fed up with testing.
“Hopefully we’ll get a fair contract and one that truly supports the students. We’ve been saying [that] from the beginning. We do want a longer day but we want to make sure that our kids get the same thing that Rahm’s kids get, like recess and fine arts. We don’t need a continuation of test prep. That’s all our kids have been getting lately and it’s very frustrating,” Mateescu said.
Many teachers in the crowd said they hope the deal being put to paper is fair and will bring them back to class Monday morning. But they also said they were willing to stay on the picket lines longer, if needed.
The union and the school board were still working on contract language late Saturday. The union's House of Delegates is slated to get a look at the deal on Sunday. They'll also vote on whether to end the strike. If they do, the union's full membership will still need to approve the contract. That would take place in the coming weeks.