Since Monday, 350,000 Chicago kids who normally would be spending their day in classrooms crudely carving pictures of penises onto wooden desks are free to crudely carve penises on wooden things that are not located inside of a school building — their teachers are on strike. Let's take a terribly disappointing slog through the "shrills" and "sillies" of something that, for millions of women nationwide who teach, could have implications on their future livelihoods.
Karen Lewis is the President of the Chicago Teachers Union. And boy, do news outlets love to point out that she's a big loud fat lady. The Associated Press called her "brash and blunt, a union leader known for her tart tongue and flip one-liners." The Washington Times calls her "silly."
Others aren't as subtle. Whirlwind of frothy, barking hate Michelle Malkin called Lewis "a vulgar standup comic wannabe" and a "fat cat." GET IT?! Because she's not skinny!
Thinking that teachers don't deserve higher incomes because teaching is easy is part of a long, proud tradition of dismissing women's work as less valuable and somehow less serious than men's work. Wanting to earn a living wage for doing it? That's just greedy.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 76% of teachers are women, and there are 3.7 million teachers in the country. Conservatives like Mitt and Ann Romney can pay lip service to how difficult it is for stay-at-home moms all they want, but until they value the contributions of the teachers who provide education, childcare, discipline, and sometimes basic health care for children while their parents are at work, it's only pandering.
This strike is not about salary. It's about job security and the future of the teaching profession as a viable way to earn a living wage. But that hasn't stopped many a news outlet from printing complaints that it's all about the Benjamins and bling and fancy cars that prompt people to get into the teaching profession in the first place. Reporting — for some reason — from Phoenix, one intrepid and totally-not-in-Chicago commentator showcases his entry into this year's anti-teacher fanfiction writing contest.
So how much do Chicago school teachers currently make?
$76,000 a year, and that's before any benefits.
Compare that to the average Chicagoan, who earns only $47,000 per year. Compare it to the average compensation for high school teachers in the United States. They make around $43,000 a year, while elementary school teachers make around $40,000 a year. Compared to American teachers, average Americans, and the people of Chicago, the Chicago teachers have it pretty good.
And so, of course, they want more.
Ah, yes. The myth of the wealthy public school teacher. Not only is this strike decidedly not about salary, he's wrong about what Chicago teachers earn. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it's more like $56,000 — BLING BLING. Folks, keep your eyes open for the next Bret Easton Ellis novel "Apple Core," about the seedy cocaine soaked world of excess hiding just behind the coatroom curtain at America's public schools. Many It people try to get past the velvet monkey bars, but only a few Make the Grade. In stores this fall. In the meantime, be sure to check out Teachers of Instagram, a blog devoted to the private jet photos teachers snap on their way to their Bacchanalian anything-goes gilded getaways they call "inservice."
The reasons for the Chicago strike are complicated and probably best not delved into in a small space, but skeletally, the Teachers Union is the only thing standing between Mayor Rahm Emanuel's dream of spreading charter schools across the city of Chicago as a way to not only appease his charter school-building backers, but also cut costs for the city. Charter schools can hire cheapo workers, and public school teachers in Chicago belong to a powerful union that requires its members be paid higher union wages. If Rahm gets his way, he can purge expensive union teachers from the payroll by closing public schools and then opening newly minted charters in their place. In the mayor's view, the new schools will be able to sidestep unions when hiring new staff, but if the Union gets its way, new charters will have to hire union teachers that were laid off when public schools were closed. Other things the teachers want: air conditioning in the classrooms, teacher evaluations that don't depend too much on student test scores. They're not asking for yachts.
Suddenly, everyone is an expert on how teachers feel about the children they serve. Going on strike, they argue, means they're just doing the teaching thing as a way to pull one over on The Taxpayer (The Taxpayer is a white guy who enjoys golf, but not too much, and gave his wife a car with a bow on top for Christmas last year). They don't care about the kids!
Plain and simple, it is about the union's drive to protect Chicago's incompetent teachers at the expense of students and good teachers. We must not be fooled by the rhetoric that teachers are striking in the interest of students.
Even a typically-with-it columnist at the Times questions whether or not CPS teachers care about kids.
America's education system has become less a ladder of opportunity than a structure to transmit inequity from one generation to the next. This is an issue of equality, opportunity and national conscience. It's not just about education, but about poverty and justice — and while the Chicago teachers' union claims to be striking on behalf of students, I don't see it.
Et tu, Kristof?
My first year out of college, I worked with Chicago Public Schools on the South side of the city. You couldn't pay me enough to teach in some of those places; I will take a pay cut so that I can enjoy the luxury of not teaching on the South side of Chicago! One high school I worked with had such an untenable violence problem thanks to a new population of kids shuffled in to make way for a new charter school (they were from a nearby neighborhood and members of — derp — a rival gang, something educational officials didn't consider in their quest to Make Schools Better) that the place had to be locked down several times, and police patrolled the hallways. Classrooms in some elementary schools were jam packed so full and teachers stretched so thin that special ed kids were instructed to put their heads down on their desks while the teacher focused on teaching the "regular" kids. My fiancee, a product of CPS, spent his schooldays in a place where students had to share textbooks, where the locker room showers didn't work, where the ceiling over the gymnasium was crumbling. Not even Whoopi Goldberg in a nun habit could reign in a classroom of 40 squirrely second graders.
Have any of these people ever hung around a teacher? Ever talked to one about how they spend their own money on classroom supplies that exceed their meager budgets? Ever spent time with a teacher during one of her "summers off" when she's teaching summer school, taking continuing education classes and certification seminars, and returning to the classroom a month before the kids return?
The only reason a person would subject him or herself to teaching at most Chicago Public Schools is because they care deeply about kids. Criticizing striking teachers as lazy freeloaders who just want more money and don't care about kids is about as asinine as criticizing members of the military as adrenaline junkies wanting to travel the world on the taxpayers' dime. Debate the merits of charter schools all you want, but don't try to make this strike about Karen Lewis, greed, or callous uncaring public employees.
The Chicago Reader's Michael Miner beautifully summarized the chasm of misunderstanding between charter school proponents who mean well and teachers who are actually on the front lines,
What's interesting about actually experiencing public education (as opposed to reading the latest studies) is that everything critics say is wrong with it turns out to be true, but the context for thinking about all these problems changes. In public education as understood by someone who treats it as a leper colony, there are endless ranks of mediocre teachers, but no great ones-at least no great ones who aren't ground down and defeated by the system. But it turns out there are plenty of great teachers and many of them are indomitable. They are the most impressive critics of Chicago's public schools that you will find, but they don't want the system blown up with them inside it. They simply want to be left alone to teach.