By Dan Haley
On the West Side where we've published the Austin Weekly for 15 years, there are widening pockets of palpable energy, maybe even optimism, about education and learning. If there is a growth industry in Austin and Garfield Park it is in education. Private schools. Charters. Magnets. Elementary. High school. Not so much in pre-school where it is really vital.
This energy didn't start in the neighborhood Chicago Public Schools. It has been smothered in those schools for the most part and the exceptions within CPS are few and pretty recent. Teachers get just some of the blame. There is plenty of blame here and it can be shared equally and fairly. CPS is a failure. Principals have coasted and never been called to account. Parents have failed. The state has failed. Daley and the aldermen failed. We've all failed. We've all contributed to generations of failing.
But now we're in a moment where the focus is on the members of the Chicago Teachers Union and their rolling strike. The raises they've won — 16 percent over four years with the steps and the lane bumps included — and the health care they've secured can be chalked up to exceptional negotiating. Those teachers are now rightly worried that the new contract will hasten more school closings. That's inevitable. But the issues that have caused this strike to seep into Week Two are simply about putting teachers above kids.
Putting teachers above kids.
The union won this strike. They just didn't have the good judgment to claim victory on Sunday.
For this union to fight the beginnings of some sort of fair evaluation system for teachers is to deny the wondrous power of great teachers and the devastating impact of poor ones. It is the union saying the failed ways of the past 50 years of urban education that produce virtually no college graduates is plenty good enough.
To crow that you've beaten back merit pay is to reduce teaching to building cars and other robotic functions. To attempt to force principals to hire retread teachers from failed schools is to insist that all that matters is job security.
School reform is here. Rahm Emanuel will be able to claim some success toward reform even in this strike that he is losing. But the reform is happening imperfectly and erratically despite the union, despite the Chicago Public Schools. And it is starting with choice. Give West Side parents options and opportunities and a good number will choose alternatives to neighborhood schools that have failed their kids.
The choice is in the KIPP schools — co-founded by a River Forest fellow — which take all kids and committed parents and simply go to work. No magic. No tricks. No fancy tech. It is underway at Christ the King College Prep (aka Cristo Rey), the first new Jesuit school on the West Side in decades, which is now sending its first graduates off to college. It is happening at the Catalyst Schools like the one in the old Sienna High School building on Washington. At Providence-St. Mel's, the granddaddy of choice on the West Side. And it is happening in some CPS schools where principals have led, teachers have rallied, parents have partnered, communities have coalesced.
Is there a lack of trust between the union and CPS? There is bound to be. The job of leaders is to bridge such gaps and Emanuel and Karen Lewis of the CTU have failed to lead on that front.
Are the challenges profound? Poverty, unemployment, gang crime, fractured families. The list is staggering. And schools and their teachers can't ever overcome all that pain. But by rejecting efforts to change public education in poor black neighborhoods like Austin feels like teachers have lost all faith in their ability to change lives.