Fight for America's Future Tour 2010: Chicago
Education funding was the main topic of discussion during AFT president Randi Weingarten's first stop of the day, a private meeting with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley at City Hall that also included Chicago Teachers Union president (and AFT vice president) Marilyn Stewart and Chicago school board president Mary Richardson-Lowry. Chicago, like most urban districts in the country, is facing severe budget problems. One cost-saving idea that the board of education has brought up would increase class sizes in the district's public schools, which now run about 28 students per class, to 35 or more.
In response to the proposal, which would obviously have a huge impact on teaching conditions in the city's 663 schools, the CTU is organizing a rally at the board's offices on May 25. Among the other issues that Weingarten and Stewart raised with the mayor were funding for the city's 10 Fresh Start schools, which have shown promise in raising achievement levels for some of the city's most disadvantaged students (see more below), and the need for more collaboration with the union on school reform.
Wells Community Academy High School, a solid 1935 structure on the city's West Side, is one of 10 Fresh Start schools in Chicago. The Fresh Start program is a partnership between the board of education and the CTU to turn around low-performing schools through instructional leadership teams, teacher peer mentoring, research-based programs and a modest amount of additional funding. Wells, which had been through five principals in five years, now has an administrator in his second year who is committed to continuing to lead the school, and build on recent gains in student achievement and improvements in the overall school environment. Principal Ernesto Matias led Weingarten, Stewart, Illinois Federation of Teachers president (and AFT vice president) Ed Geppert Jr. and other AFT visitors on a tour of the school. He made a point of taking the group to the auditorium to show off a new large projection screen purchased with funds the school received as a finalist in the AFT's Extreme Classroom Makeover contest.
Weingarten was energized by a stop at the school's unique law academy, which prompted the AFT president to talk enthusiastically about her own days teaching law and government in New York City. During the four-year academy, students not only take law classes but also are enrolled in the same set of honors courses together throughout their time at the school. Teacher Peter Poulos was leading the class in a discussion about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and specifically, about whether the school's principal—who happened to be one of the visitors—has a right to restrict what students write in their school newspaper. The students showed an impressive grasp of the legal issues involved and the relevant court cases related to student speech. It was easy to see why the classroom décor included numerous plaques from victories in mock trial competitions.
As the bell rang, one student asked Weingarten why she and many of the other visitors were wearing pink heart buttons. It gave Weingarten a chance to talk about the AFT's "Pink Hearts, Not Pink Slips" campaign to help stop devastating budget cuts that districts around the country are facing. The effort, she told them, is about keeping great teachers like Poulos in the classroom instead of on the unemployment line.
With a new tentative contract agreement in hand—reached literally hours before Weingarten visited the school—teachers and administrators at the Chicago Talent Development High School were excited to talk about what they see as a groundbreaking contract. The charter school, named for the Johns Hopkins University program being implemented there, has small class sizes and a rigorous curriculum with extra help for students. It uses data to inform instruction, and—as the staff made clear—features a true partnership in which teachers are centrally involved in everything from hiring and evaluation to class schedules and curriculum.
As Weingarten put it at a press conference to announce the new agreement, it's almost impossible to tell labor from management when staff there talk about their work and their vision for the school. The school received one of the first grants from the AFT's Innovation Fund, with the aim of designing a model contract that other charter schools—in fact, any school—could build on. Both sides talked about beginning negotiations with a blank slate rather than submitting their own proposals. When that's the case, school CEO Kirby Callam said, the only way to reach an agreement is through collaboration.
"Teachers have a real voice in this school," said Eli Argamaso, one of the union's lead negotiators and its first president. "As teachers, we care about the future of our students and our country," and that's a starting point for designing a contract that focuses on helping students succeed.
"You have created an amazing institution here," Weingarten said. "Shared responsibility, trust and collaboration" have been woven through both the bargaining process and the content of that agreement. Geppert, who serves as chairman of the school's board, said he was "very proud to applaud their success."
The last AFT president to visit the Lake County Federation, located about an hour's drive north of Chicago, was Albert Shanker, who walked a picket line with members during a lengthy strike in Waukegan in 1984. Twenty-six years later, Weingarten was greeted enthusiastically at a meeting of the union. By the time Weingarten spoke, the council leaders and activists had already been warmed up by feisty remarks from Geppert and local president Mike McGue, who both focused primarily on the terrible budget and political situation in Illinois.
Following a state legislative session that saw devastating cuts to the teacher pension system and that failed to pass a budget that deals with a $13 billion deficit, Geppert said, "It's time that we get mad." He also vowed that no member of the Legislature, including many Democrats, who supported the pension cuts will receive an endorsement or COPE money from the state federation. "We need revenue," McGue said. "That's the only answer."
Weingarten returned to many of the themes she has been emphasizing during the Fight for America's Future tour. The AFT and its members face pressure from many sides right now, she said: the need to modernize education so students are prepared for the information economy; the rising tide of nasty rhetoric from so-called reformers whose main point is to blame teachers and unions for everything that isn't working with schools; and the worst recession in more than 50 years.
While the AFT and its affiliates are fighting back on multiple fronts, the biggest priority must be to avert layoffs of an estimated 300,000 educators around the country that could take place by next fall. (In Illinois alone, 10,000 IFT members have received layoff notices, Geppert said.)
"We need to talk about investing, not disinvesting, in education," Weingarten said. As she did at every stop during the day, she mentioned the AFT's "Pink Hearts, Not Pink Slips" campaign, which is focused on winning passage of a $23 billion federal funding bill that would help avert many of those pending layoffs. She urged the Lake County leaders to visit the campaign website, sign the petition supporting the legislation, contact their legislators and urge their colleagues to do the same thing.
"When we are together in solidarity and in collective action," whether rallying on the streets or working in classrooms for better education, she said, "we win. Now we need to win more than ever for our futures, our kids' futures and our country's future." [Dan Gursky/photos by Lee Balgemann]