President's perspective

Lesson of Chicago strike: Be sure to vote

With their bold seven-day strike, our brothers and sisters in the Chicago Teachers Union have won an important victory in their fight to push back the misguided political agendas of so-called “education reformers” that are causing harm in their schools. We supported them fully not just because they were fighting to improve their schools, but because they were also fighting to secure the same rights that we in New York are attempting to preserve.

Indeed, the issues at the heart of the Chicago teachers’ strike — merit pay, evaluations, a fair appeals process, the right to bargain collectively, class sizes, greater support for schools and greater investment in the services on which children depend — are the same issues that are hotly contested here in New York City and in school districts small and large throughout the nation.

That’s why their strike received widespread support from teachers and others all across the country, including the UFT, which proudly donated $10,000 to the CTU’s strike fund and promised to do whatever it could to support their efforts. UFT members throughout the city showed their solidarity by wearing red on Sept. 12. [See Chicago teachers return to work after strike and accompanying photo gallery.]

Like us, the teachers in Chicago want to be inside the classroom doing what they do best — teaching children; not walking a picket line. But for seven days, that is where Chicago teachers were — not by choice, but because they had no choice.

Chicago, like New York, has been an epicenter of “education reform” — but, despite all the so-called “reforms,” Chicago’s schools have not improved. The professional lives of many Chicago teachers have been ruined in the process, but it has done little to help the children. Also like New York, Chicago has seen dozens of its schools shuttered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, inciting the ire of parents across the city. The importance of parent support for teachers in both cities — including during the strike — cannot be overstated.

But there are important differences, too. First and foremost, teachers in Chicago lack many of the basic rights afforded to teachers and other public-sector workers in New York. For example, in Chicago, unlike in New York, when a school is shuttered, its teachers have only a short amount of time to find new positions — no matter how good they are in the classroom or how long they have been on the job. Chicago’s teachers struck because they want those basic rights and because they objected to the terms of a new — and extremely punitive — evaluation system that had been imposed upon them.

Sound familiar?

It should, because the possible imposition of a new evaluation system was a hurdle we had to overcome, too, and we did it not by striking — public-sector strikes are illegal under New York State’s Taylor Law — but by using the relationships we have fostered with our elected officials in Albany. We worked with them to make sure that New York State’s law on teacher evaluation guaranteed that any new evaluation system would be subject to collective bargaining between the state’s school districts and their teacher unions.

In Illinois, just the opposite happened. The CTU was cut out of the process, and when the Illinois state Legislature revised the state’s law on teacher evaluation, it included a special requirement just for Chicago: The CTU was given 90 days to negotiate a new evaluation system with the Chicago Public Schools after which the district was allowed to unilaterally impose a new system.

Not surprisingly, the evaluation system put into place by the Chicago Public Schools is a “gotcha” system meant to penalize teachers, not a system intended to support them and help them to grow as educators. We will never allow such a system to be created here in New York — and, through collective bargaining, we have the means to prevent it.

Another difference: Last February, we locked in an appeals process for teacher evaluations that includes the third-party, independent validation of teacher ratings that we insisted upon to ensure fairness; in Chicago, the evaluation system imposed on teachers had no appeals process until they won one by striking.

Our situations may be different, but we agree that supporting teachers is the way to help our students succeed, something which the “education reformers” do not believe.

The lesson for us here in New York is simple: Our ability to push back those so-called “reformers” with their anti-teacher agenda depends in large measure on electing local and state representatives who understand and appreciate the importance of the work that we do every day in the classroom. And that means voting.

We must re-elect President Obama in the November elections, but the state elections are also extremely important for our union and our profession, and I cannot stress enough that we must all vote in them. You can see a list of the UFT’s endorsed candidates. Remember, without elected officials in Albany who believe in the importance of teachers and public education, we very well could also have had a punitive evaluation system imposed on us.

Please make sure to vote on Nov. 6 — for yourself and for all of us.

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