by Wana Duhart
As Chicago's teachers' union and city school officials hopefully finalize the details of a new labor agreement, it seems ironic that you have all the grownups holed up in meetings while the students and their parents have been left to fend for themselves. It is quite strange that the adults are debating adult issues like job security and professional evaluations, while the children and youth are being shut out of schools and losing valuable classroom time. It doesn't seem to make much sense that the very ones who are supposed to be served – the students – are the ones who are left in limbo during these negotiations.
How is it that the actual delivery of public education can be brought to a complete standstill when the grownups don't get what they want? One wonders what they would do if the students actually decided to go on strike to protest poor teaching, crumbling school buildings, or unsafe learning conditions. Once again, the grownups continue to have things twisted and backwards. As a national priority, we should have established a long time ago, that classroom time or school openings never be held hostage by labor negotiations.
One would think that Chicago's union leaders and their membership would understand this and figure out a more effective way to get what they want, instead of allowing school-aged youth to be shut out of school buildings. Do the adults have a conscience or moral compass, or is it always about self interests? Surely they understand that the education of our youth demands a different kind of union response, one that does not prevent kids from attending school.
Perhaps what we have not fully acknowledged is that some unionized teachers are like every other unionized profession — they will take whatever steps are necessary to gain what they deem is theirs, at whatever cost. And in this case, it does not matter that students are suffering as schools are closed. Somehow many of us have wanted to believe that all teachers' unions operated differently from other workers' unions — that the education of our youth was front and center no matter what.
The scene is Chicago is a strong reminder that even though some unions and others who fight back against school reform efforts tell us that they care about the children, what many of them don't say is that their support is dependent on whether they get what they want. They've told us for years that K12 schools are not to be treated as businesses, that the delivery of public education is unique. We agree! But what some unions are proving to us once again is that they view it as their business and will use it to get their fair share of security and professional respect whenever they feel like it.
Unionized teachers will surely say they work hard and demand adequate tools to do their jobs well – we agree wholeheartedly! But what they won't say is they don't teach at the pleasure of their students. Unions have every right to fight for its members; however, it would seem in the case of public schools, a strike should never consist of not showing up to teach the very students who depend on you. Teachers' unions, like the one in Chicago, need to figure out alternative approaches to protesting when labor disputes arise.
Organized strikes and shutting down whole school districts unfairly punish innocent young people who have nothing to do with what goes on in labor negotiations. Protests and boycotts in business, other industries, and sectors are necessary and make sense, but in K12 education, they serve to inflict a great injustice on students, especially in a district such as Chicago where there's much work to be done to transform schools that are already failing to deliver high quality education.
At what point do we make sure the kids get what is due them – a high quality education administered by highly competent classroom instructors? At what point do the students get the same academic security that unionized teachers are fighting for? Our kids deserve to know that when we fail to gain security and benefits in our jobs or professions, we won't leave them out in the cold (or heat) as we negotiate our own professional interests. Students need to know that we won't use them as scapegoats to gain personal equity and fairness without providing them with the same academic equity and fairness they deserve as students.
Wana Duhart is the Founder and CEO of Trahud Enterprises, which develops alliances in education that yield innovation, creativity, and flexibility in public schooling. and has spent three decades working in varying capacities across many sectors. She is the author of the book A Call to the Village: Retooling Public Schools and publishes her own blog, The VillageSpace.