Daisy Gamboa worries her son Diego, an eighth grader at Grimes Elementary, a Chicago public school on the Southwest Side, has missed a lot of learning since the fall of 2019.
Between the pandemic school shutdown, remote classes and the 2019 teachers strike, Gamboa said Diego has been shortchanged.
“He lost out on a lot and for him to go into high school, I think he is not going to be prepared. He is gonna be behind,” said Gamboa. She had hoped her son could go back for in-person learning on Feb. 1, but that return date has been pushed back until March 8 under the reopening deal the Chicago Teachers Union negotiated with the school district. Teachers ratified the deal on Tuesday.
During the protracted and bitter fight over that deal, Gamboa worried her son would suffer even more as the teachers union threatened to strike. It would have been the second teachers strike in Chicago in 15 months.
“We are thinking of leaving and just moving to the suburbs,” Gamboa said.
Gamboa is one of many Chicago Public Schools parents who say they feel worn out by the fighting between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union.
Some say the failure by school district and union leaders to work together is making them lose faith in the city’s public school system.
“You feel just exhausted at the end of the day,” said Roberto Carlos Menjivar, whose daughter is a sophomore at Jones College Prep. “Why can’t we be better?”
Added Natasha Dunn, who has a sixth grader at Agassiz Elementary on the North Side: “Watching the back and forth to a certain extent became extremely disgusting.”
Parents like Dunn and Gamboa worry the district may be entering another era of regular strikes, like in the 1970s and 1980s when teachers walked nine times.
CPS parents from different neighborhoods have been coming together and hosting online forums to express their discontent. They feel their voices were drowned out during the reopening debate. They want that to change.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently said she understands this has been hard on parents.
“We need to create a process of healing,” Lightfoot said. “This has been a very tough process for everybody in the CPS ecosystem and notably our students and their parents.”
But to win parents’ trust and confidence in the district, parents say union and school leaders need to figure out how to actually work together.
The union and the school district have been at odds since the pandemic began over whether it’s safe to reopen schools.
District officials have argued for months that their school reopening plan was safe, while the union adamantly disagreed, saying CPS was putting staff and students at risk.
The fight included overheated rhetoric and threats to lock large numbers of teachers out of their virtual classrooms for refusing to return in person. CPS ultimately locked dozens of school staff out of their Google Classrooms.
As the showdown continued without an agreement, the union’s threat to strike became more real, raising the stakes and leaving parents feeling caught in the middle and deeply uncertain about what each new day would bring.
It also left some parents pitted against each other on social media, either defending or blaming each side.
Gamboa facilitated a recent forum with Spanish speaking parents who wanted a safe space to express their views.
“My mistrust is with CTU because I see the misleading information that they throw out there — the scare tactics and fear-mongering,” Gamboa said.
But other parents cast blame on CPS, saying it used a top-down approach to come up with its original reopening plan.
They defend the CTU, saying the union rightfully pushed back on a plan they say was set up to fail from the get-go. They see the CTU as a strong advocate for more school resources, including counselors, social workers, and a nurse in each school.
“I am glad that the CTU is actually getting involved,” parent Cindy Meza said. “CPS never listened to us. So having the CTU show concern for our children is a big help.”
Looking ahead, parents wonder if CPS and CTU will ever find a way to work together.
Last month, the union scored a major legislative victory. State lawmakers passed a bill that repeals a 25-year-old law that restricts the CTU’s bargaining rights to negotiating over salary and benefits only.
The legislation now sits on Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk. It restores the union’s full bargaining rights, putting them on par with all other teachers unions in the state and strengthening their hand at the bargaining table.
But with or without those bargaining rights, the union has long known how to push its demands forward, labor experts say.
And now that the CTU has its full bargaining rights, there may be more incentive for both CTU and CPS to reach agreements, said Bob Bruno, a professor of labor and employment at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. He also wrote a book on the 2012 teachers strike.
Bruno said the recent fights between the district and the CTU are the result of “one party, CTU, not feeling like [its] voice is being heard.”
District and union leaders, he said, need to find a way to come together earlier in negotiations and say, “Let’s get on the table all of the factors that we think are relevant, and let’s talk about what our interests are.” Then, he said, find a way to say. ‘OK, so let’s build the plan together.’”
Menjivar, the CPS parent, added that the district needs to truly engage parents and teachers when making decisions. “I think there was a lack of community engagement,” he said.
He also said parents are stepping away from CPS not just because of the fighting between CPS and CTU. He said families are being pushed away because some policies prevent Black and Latino students from getting a quality education. Jones College Prep, one of the city’s top selective enrollment schools, is an example of that. Enrollment of Black students has been on the decline and it’s currently under 12%, he points out.
In the past, other district policies, including the closure of 50 schools in 2013, have also pushed families away. CPS enrollment is already down by more than 60,000 students over the last decade.
Menjivar believes Schools CEO Janice Jackson and other CPS officials want to improve the schools. He also believes the union looks out for the best interest of students.
But their fighting over how to make CPS better, he and others say, is breaking key relationships with parents and ultimately hurting students and families.