Sarah Jaffe has a great new piece up dismantling a bunch of complaints about the Chicago teachers’ union and their strike. The whole thing is well worth reading, but I wanted to piggyback on one particular bit.
Jaffe quotes Times columnist Joe Nocera’s claim that “the status quo, which is what the Chicago teachers want, is clearly unacceptable,” and responds with this:
“Here’s a deep-seated bit of ideology that’s really worth unpacking for a second. This is the image of unions in the American psyche these days. Most people think of them as little-c conservative institutions holding on to a dead past, trying to protect what their members have against a sweeping tide of change.
“It’s wrong, and the CTU couldn’t be a better example of just how wrong it is. Karen Lewis and her union are the ones actually fighting for reforms in the schools, starting with things we know work: smaller class sizes, well-rounded curriculum, support for teachers and school staff. They might legally only be allowed to strike over salary and benefits, but they’ve been out there at every turn arguing for change, not the status quo.”
The problem is obvious, and it’s symptomatic of the biggest problem in debates over American public education (primary, secondary, and higher) more generally right now: The most sensible proposals for reforming public education have been written out of “reasonable” public discourse.
In short, Nocera believes that CTU is fighting for the status quo because their proposals have been rendered invisible.
Just seven months ago, CTU released a comprehensive report on how Chicago’s public schools could be improved. It’s thoughtful, ambitious work, and it turns out that the pricetag on the union’s whole better-schools wishlist amounts to just 15% of the system’s annual budget. That money would buy improvements in everything from facilities to art and music instruction to school lunches, while increasing teacher pay, implementing universal pre-K and full-day kindergarten and dramatically expanding school libraries in the parts of the city that need them most.
If that’s what you get for $713 million, you could get big chunks of it for a lot less, and it’s not like the current impasse is free — not for the city, and not for the city’s taxpayers.
So why aren’t we talking about any of this? For the same reason we’re not talking about cutting tuition at public colleges, or increasing in-state enrollment, or hiring more full-time faculty. Because the dominant narrative of austerity, not the country’s actual financial situation, is driving public discourse.
And that narrative has no room for hope. Or change.