Quick Hit Progress Illinois Friday September 7th, 2012, 8:58pm

Op-Ed: Crisis In Chicago Schools Is Portent For Other Districts

The following is written by Oscar Weil, former executive director of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

The threat of a teachers’ strike in Chicago is but an introduction to a crisis that will spread as school districts and unions face many problems in negotiating new contracts. A crisis has been building in Illinois for thirty years, as it has been in other states, like California, which was once a model for education in the nation and is now in decline. The decline began in Illinois when Ronald Reagan was able to turn the people away from the progressive income tax as the only way the nation could carry the cost of paying for a public education system that has been the most democratic in the developed world, a system that became the foundation for the greatest economy in the world. 

It scares me to think the Chicago Teachers Union might accept a multi-year agreement with the hope it will give them security from demands by politicians like Mayor Emanuel. I hope they are aware that every teacher and every student and parent in the state will soon bear the brunt of cuts in education services that all schools will surely face in the coming years because the nation turned away from progressive income taxes and now rely on regressive property taxes, sales taxes, casino and other gambling taxes, higher license fees, and on any other regressive taxes that politicians think they can get away with.

There is one thing that a lot of politicians apparently agree on. It seems almost all the politicians in the world think bad teachers are to blame for dysfunctional schools. Only at the bargaining table will they listen to us explain that there is a legal process for firing bad teachers, that the process has been made easier for school administrators to use with what I believe was the misguided help of the teachers’ unions who bowed to political pressure that will not solve anything, but will distract people from the important issue: how to recruit high caliber high school students into teacher training programs, and how to retain the best teachers, who often leave teaching for better paying jobs.

Only when unions and school boards are engaged in collective bargaining is there clear communication about problems in schools, as when union negotiators can express concern about cuts in physical education and the sedentary life styles that add to childhood obesity; like layoffs of reading specialists, whose services are known well only by classroom teachers whose students are affected; like layoffs of art and music teachers that are not noticed except by parents whose children will never know the benefits of exposure to such teachers, or by the regular academic teachers who try in vain to fill the gap: like vacancies in counselors’ positions that are not filled and students go without help in preparing for life after high school; like early childhood programs that are threatened by elimination; like class sizes that are increasing each year with little notice except by teachers and the most alert parents, and on and on. Union leaders know that a most important value of collective bargaining is communication with the community about the value of services and about deterioration and destruction of services. 

Unless there is an effective union and bargaining about such things, the only voices that are heard are those of school administrators or the occasional concerned parent who takes the time and effort to raise their voices or organize protests about cuts that hurt their children.  Teachers must know that those school managers in charge are always subject to political pressure and will not admit publicly the failures of the system that they are responsible for managing. Together teachers and their unions can lodge protests that can be heard in defense of successful school programs or complain about valuable tools, materials, and programs that are missing from schools, or that teachers do without.

Oscar Weil was executive director of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) for over 20 years. During his time with IFT, the organization went from having no members to having over 45,000 teachers and professors with comprehensive union contracts. Oscar recently released his first book, Teachers Beyond the Law: How Teachers Changed their World, which details his fight to give Illinois public teachers the right to unionize, collectively bargain and strike.

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