From Chicago to Madison: Unions Protect All Our Students

I didn’t know what to expect as I headed out to the Labor Temple last Wednesday to hear Becca Kelly, a member of the Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) speak. I knew that a strike seemed imminent. In an amazing show of solidarity, 90% of the CTU voted to support a strike. I had read in the mainstream media that this battle was over time and pay; that the Chicago teachers have been asked to put in 20% more work without a pay increase.

With this in mind, I listened intently as the fiery, young CTU teacher addressed the crowd. The room erupted in applause as Kelly declared, “We’ve been compromising. We’ve been compromising, we’ve been compromising, and we’ve been compromising. And we’re done!” And it is not the politicians or the union “bosses” who will lead this charge. Kelly knows that the strength to fight this battle will come from their “capacity as teachers to fight.” I was inspired by these words, but what inspired me more was when I took a closer look at what this fight is really about. It is a fight, not about the teachers, but about the quality of education for all students

Paging through the 46 page report, The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve paints an unequivocal impression of CTU’s integrity. The document is laden with student centered demands, such as “recognize that class size matters,” “address inequities in our system,” and “teach all students.” The document also brings to light the negative impact that charter schools and privatization has had on Chicago’s public schools. As Kelly stated, “Billionaire Penny Pritzker and Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama would never ever send their kids to my school. We want to fight for schools they would send their kids to for all our students.” The demands of the CTU are inspiring, but they also make me question the future of our schools here in Madison, Wisconsin.  I couldn’t help but notice that many of the items that Kelly and the other teachers are fighting for are also protections in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) of Madison Teachers, Inc. (MTI) After June 30th, 2013, this document will no longer be in effect.

The propaganda of the far right aims to convince the public that teacher unions are there solely to protect teachers.

However, people immersed in the profession understand that collective bargaining agreements also protect our students and protect our public schools. Section IV-H of the CBA outlines a clear evaluation procedure for all teachers. In this process, the agreement directs administrators to evaluate new teachers more frequently so that strengths and weaknesses can be identified early on. Furthermore, it requires that with areas of weakness a plan is acted on to “improve classroom instruction” so that an evaluation will help the teacher serve their students more effectively. By following these types of guidelines, the CBA ensures both that teachers are given meaningful, specific feedback on their instruction and that they are given guidance in making improvements. The goal is clear, strengthen instruction to maximize student performance.

Academic freedom is highlighted in Section V-A, where the CBA lays out the need to allow students freedom of expression and a safe environment in which to share their opinions, as long as the presentation is consistent with the policies of the school board.  Without the security of knowing that a teacher will not be retaliated against for allowing students to share controversial ideas, meaningful dialogue would be stifled in the classroom, as would the students’ growth. This section also provides a framework for teachers entering into contentious territory, so that discussions and instruction teach a respect for multiple viewpoints and differences. In a global society, embracing differences and learning how to respect each other are critical keys to success.

Delving further into the CBA, I am confronted with Section V-C: Class Size. This is a section whose importance should not be under dispute. In fact, even the ultra-conservative Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, sent his five sons to a school with an average class size of twelve students. Smaller classes mean more individualized attention for students. In Madison teachers’ CBA, class size is capped at 30 students. When this number is exceeded, the agreement lays out a course of action to remedy the situation.

This section also lays out the benefits of inclusion and its place in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). Under this directive, also in accordance with federal laws, no student shall be excluded from the district because of a disability. Students with disabilities will be educated with their non-disabled peers to the largest extent possible because of the benefits of “interaction and modeling with students who are non-disabled.” They will also be provided with aides and services to make this experience successful for the student being included and the classroom as a whole. In addition, the agreement requires the district to train teachers in a disability area when implementing programming. In the event that including a student causes a significant disturbance to the classroom, the CBA lays out a collaborative process for re-evaluating the student’s plan and modifying it as necessary to meet the needs of both the individual student and the classroom. This process guarantees that all voices are heard and that inclusion is implemented for the betterment of all students.

In the classroom, quality instruction and small class sizes are essential, but it is also important that students are using valuable and authentic resources. Section V-D states, “No textbook will be adopted unless such has been recommended by a committee of teachers elected by the appropriate grade level and/or school and/or area teachers with whom they work.” Involving teaching professionals in the selections of textbooks guarantees their usefulness in the classroom.

This analysis only takes us half-way through the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Further items include playground supervision, the school calendar, professional development opportunities, student transportation, handling emergency situations, school safety, giving teachers adequate time to be thoughtful in planning instruction, and providing students with experiences in art, music and physical education. This content makes it clear that this document exists in the best interest of schools, teachers and the students they serve.

Attacks on MTI’s Collective Bargaining Agreement often include references to its length. Yes, it is indeed a 182 page document. However, this 182 pages has been created over the course of 80 years of formal and informal collective bargaining that has included the voices of parents, board members, teachers and citizens working together to provide a quality public education. As Chicago teachers fight to bring life to the vision encapsulated in their 46 page proposal, Madison teachers prepare for the creation of a staff handbook that will replace their current Collective Bargaining Agreement. It is clear that teachers in Madison, WI and Chicago, IL are fighting the same fight. This battle has been churning for years across the country. It is the fight to save public education for all of our students.

Further Action:
Attend the Chicago Teacher Union town meeting
Email the MMSD Board of Education

Karen GJ Lewis, CTU President
Chicago Teachers Union Vs. Astroturf Billionaires

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