Why OTL Advocates Walk the Line in Chicago

Jitu Brown, Education Organizer, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO)

As a public school parent, a community organizer and a proud resident of Chicago, I feel it important to set the record straight by telling you why many like-minded Chicagoans like me are supporting the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). You need to know the real reasons why we choose to walk the line.

First, it is important to dispel the myth that CTU is striking simply for selfish reasons related to pay and compensation. If this were the case, this conflict would have been resolved days ago. The truth is CTU is striking because they are fighting for the schools that every student in Chicago deserves. They are fighting to ensure that all of our students receive a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. They are fighting for smaller class sizes; a rich and rigorous curriculum that includes world languages, art and music in every classroom; and an equitable school system that doesn’t allow some students to have access to a high quality education while others on the other side of town are denied the same.

Just look at the facts. There are 160 Chicago public schools with no libraries, 140 of which are located in communities of color. We have 90 schools with no computer labs. Far too many of our schools have no art or full-time music teachers. Our schools have more police and security officers than counselors, mentors, psychologist and social workers. Far too many of these schools are located primarily in Black and Latino communities.

My organization—the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, or KOCO—is very clear about the problems facing our city’s schools. We are well aware of the shortcomings in the system that have denied far too many of our children with the learning opportunities that are their birthright. But we are equally clear that by demonizing teachers and promoting policies such as teacher evaluations that are primarily based on test scores —as if to say that teachers are what is wrong with the system—is nothing more than a ploy to weaken the union—one of the strongest vehicles of resistance against a corporate agenda that seeks to privatize public education. We know that the teachers are not the problem; the system is the problem. So called education reformers express the need for teacher evaluations and advocate for closing down poor performing schools and replacing them with something else that they believe will work better. Many in my community are left to ask: Instead of focusing on teacher evaluations and closing schools, when are we going to implement a school system evaluation? We know that closing schools is not a way to improve them. It is simply another way to decimate unions and tear apart communities.

KOCO is walking the line because we believe it is important to fight back against the failed education policies promoted by the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), its leaders (past and present) and Mayor Rahm Emanuel that seek only to displace teachers, destabilize schools and harm our children’s educations. Just look at where these policies are being implemented. Across the board, it appears as though the only communities being subjected to forced closing, turnarounds, co-locations, phase outs, restarts and other forms of corporate school take over are located in communities of colors. Despite the failure of these policies, Mayor Emanuel has consistently chosen to implement education strategies proposed by the former head of CPS and current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, as if they were actually successful. Unfortunately, our experience and an abundant amount of research prove otherwise. One such study from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found that during the 15 years of mayoral control, elementary and middle school reading scores have flat-lined. And what of the schools that have been closed and “turned around”? According to an article written by Catalyst Chicago, only 18 percent of the replacement schools (these are schools located in buildings where either closure or turnaround had occurred) were rated at Performance Level 1 by CPS, the highest performance level. Nearly 40 percent of these schools were Performance Level 3, the lowest rating CPS gives. Of the low-achieving schools, about a third were turnarounds and a third were charter schools. Almost all of the schools that closed were neighborhood schools.

The parents and students directly impacted by these policies have come to understand that we are made out to be scapegoats. But we know we have actual solutions that can get our schools on track.

We believe that there should be a two-year moratorium on school closings, turnarounds, co-locations, phase outs, restarts and other corporate school take-over strategies. We demand that a plan be put in place for sustainable school transformation and improvement which focuses on equitable school funding, research-driven education strategies, and meaningful parent and community involvement. We are asking for a real focus on school culture, curriculum and staffing and for wrap around supports for every child that seeks to remove the obstacles preventing them from realizing their potential. We also believe it is essential to have a locally elected representative school board instead of mayoral control.

The members of CTU are walking the line in a fight to protect our kids and to provide them with an opportunity to learn. This is the only way we can show our children how to fight back against policies that destroy their communities. We are fighting for the kinds of schools that work best for our communities. As long as CTU members continue their strike, I and other parent, student and community activists will join them in solidarity and walk the line!

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